As humankind gears up for a concerted push toward Mars, there are a whole of lot of problems we'll need to get our heads around first. Perhaps most important is how the human body can be kept in working order during extended periods in space – something astronaut Scott Kelly is hoping to shed some light on after spending a whole year aboard the International Space Station. To aid in this search for ways to combat the adverse physiological effects of deep space exploration, NASA is now running a US$500,000 competition aimed at developing functional lab-grown human tissue.

As scientists around the world work to address shortages of donor tissue and cultivate new testbeds for drug-testing, some promising strides have been made toward lab-grown tissue. We have seen engineered human muscle that contracts in response to stimuli, biological tissue with embedded wiring and 3D printing giving rise to new kinds of bio-inks that form equally promising kinds of materials.

But fabricating thick, metabolically-functional human vascularized organ tissue is the name of the game for NASA. Its Vascular Tissue Challenge is offering up a $500,000 prize to be split between the first three teams that can make this a reality. To claim the cash, teams will need to create vascularized tissue more than 1 cm (0.39 in) thick that has more than 85 percent of its required cells survive a 30-day period. The teams will need to demonstrate the tissue across three trials with a 75 percent success rate.

"The humans who will be our deep space pioneers are our most important resource on the Journey to Mars and beyond," says Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. "The outcome of this challenge has the potential to revolutionize healthcare on Earth, and could become part of an important set of tools used to minimize the negative effects of deep space on our future explorers."

NASA says that the engineered tissues from the competition will serve as models that can then be used to study the impact of deep space environments, such as higher levels of radiation. Further to that, it could be used for pharmaceutical testing, disease modeling and to advance the field of organ transplants for people back on Earth.

"When the Wright brothers discovered how to control aircraft during flight for aviation in the early 1900s, there was an explosion of progress after this key barrier was removed," says Dave Gobel, chief executive officer of the Methuselah Foundation. "In the same way, once the 'vascularization limit' is solved, via the NASA Vascular Tissue Challenge, there inevitably will be an historic advance in progress and commercialization of tissue engineering applications to everyone's benefit."

Research groups from the US interested in entering need to lodge an Intent to Participate form via the New Organ Alliance website. The trials also need to be completed by September 30th, 2019 for the prize to be claimed.

You can check out the promo video for NASA's Vascular Tissue Challenge below.

Source: NASA