Wake Forest University engineers have won NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge.

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Wake Forest University engineering teams won first and second place in NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge, the space agency announced on Wednesday.

In the lab, both teams employed somewhat different approaches to 3D-print vascularized liver tissue. The two engineering teams will now be able to test their groundbreaking tissue models on the International Space Station.

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.

“Kelsey’s team was the first team to meet the multiple criteria,” Dr. Arun Sharma, associate research professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, said during a NASA Live broadcast.

Sharma judged the entries of 11 teams participating in the challenge. Several years ago, Sharma worked with NASA scientists and astronauts to study the effect of microgravity on heart cells aboard the International Space Station.

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

“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.”

“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.

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Both winning teams created gel-like moulds, or scaffolds, with a network of channels capable of providing sufficient oxygen and nutrients to 3D-printed tissue.

Their experimental sets will be utilised aboard the space station to examine the effects of microgravity on vascularized liver tissue, and might eventually be utilised to create larger, more complicated tissue models.

NASA plans to keep utilising challenge competitions to train for future space missions, such as journeys 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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