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Wake Forest engineers win NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge

Team Winston, the first-place winner of NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge, used a chamber to hold its printed tissue for a perfusion test -- which it passed when fluid moved through it without leaking. Photo by Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine/NASA
Team Winston, the first-place winner of NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge, used a chamber to hold its printed tissue for a perfusion test -- which it passed when fluid moved through it without leaking. Photo by Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine/NASA

June 9 (UPI) -- A pair of engineering teams from Wake Forest University took home first and second place in NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge, the space agency announced Wednesday.

Both teams used slightly different techniques to 3D-print vascularized liver tissue in the lab. Now, the two engineering teams will get the opportunity to test their breakthrough tissue models on the International Space Station.

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For the challenge, NASA called on research teams to develop tissue models that were vascularized -- meaning that it had blood vessels -- was functional and could survive for at least a month.

A first-place prize of $300,000 was awarded to Team Winston, led by Kelsey Willson, a graduate student at Wake forest.

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"Kelsey's team was the first team to meet the multiple criteria," Dr. Arun Sharma, research fellow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said during a NASA Live broadcast.

Sharma and a panel of experts judged the two winning entries. Several years ago, Sharma worked with NASA scientists and astronauts to study the effect of microgravity on heart cells aboard the International Space Station.

Though the heart tissue experiment was a success, Sharma said the tissue models -- like most engineered tissue -- were without vasculature.

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"Vascularized tissue in the simplest term, is tissue that has blood vessels, and all the tissues in our body are comprised of many, many blood vessels," Sharma explained during Wednesday's broadcast. "Vasculature enables tissues in general to get bigger and better by supplying nutrients and oxygen to grow and function properly."

Medical researchers have increasingly turned to engineered tissues to study diseases and test drug candidates and other types of potential therapies. But currently, the tissues used by medical researchers aren't sufficiently vascularized.

"Engineered vascularized tissue will allow us to better understand how the variety of tissues in the human body actually function," Sharma said. "And it will allow us to study a variety of different diseases in a dish."

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"If we really want to understand how these tissues work in the human body, we have to use these next-generation models that contain human blood vessels," he added.

Both of the winning teams produced gel-like molds, or scaffolds, featuring a network of channels capable of supplying 3D-printed tissue with sufficient oxygen and nutrient levels.

Their experimental setups will be used to study the effects of microgravity on vascularized liver tissue on the space station, and ultimately could be used to produce bigger, more complex tissue models.

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NASA hopes to continue using challenge competitions to prepare for future space missions, including trips to the moon and Mars.

"Challenges are a way for us to tell the public what our problems are, our issues and technological gaps, and for the public to come and tell us what they're doing and how their technologies can help us," said Monsi Roman, Centennial Challenges manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

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