WINSTON-SALEM – A team of researchers from Wake Forest University led by Kelsey Willson, a graduate student, has won NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge, and will receive $300,000 and the opportunity to test their technology on the International Space Station.

“Not only was this a scientifically difficult challenge,” said Willson, there were technical hurdles due to the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic.  She and her team were locked out of their lab for a period of time, due to COVID-19, said Willson.

The Vascular Tissue Challenge was issued in 2016.  The winner was announced today on NASA Live.

Willson’s team will continue this work, which has applications far beyond how it might be used in space.  She also conducts additional research, including applications for using 3D printing of functional human skin, shared Willson.

“Liver failure is devastating for so many in our country,” said Willson, responding to a question from an audience member about why her team chose to construct vascular liver tissue.  “With biomedical engineering, I can really see the impact on people I’m helping directly.”

Willson also participated at another Wake Forest team that completed the challenge, which ended up finishing the challenge in second place, and will receive $100,000 to continue their research, as will the third-place team.

The competition began in 2016 with the goal of increasing the pace of bioengineering innovations that will both benefit humans on Earth and future space explorers.

“The first thing we’re looking to research is how space will really effect this,” said Willson, about how the team plans to continue their research on the International Space Station.  “Microgravity system has been found to change how much oxygen can get into a culture,” said Willson.

According to a NASA press statement, research teams were asked to create lab-grown human tissues for a thick-walled organ, like the heart, lung, liver, or kidney, and then keep it alive and functioning during a 30-day trial period.

“It’s a critically important challenge,” said Dr. Arun Sharma, who evaluated the 11 teams participating in the event.  “The possibilities are endless,” added Sharma.

The technology has profound applications.

“With the ability to regenerate thick vascular tissue, we can make an impact on earth and in space,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

It’s entirely possible that we’ll see this technology put to use within the decade, said said Michael Roberts, interim chief scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, and the manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, who also served as a judge for the Vascular Tissue Challenge.

“In the next 5-10 years, we will be able to make tissue patches, to print out, for instance, liver tissue,” said Robers.  “That’s actually our reasonable near-term future.”  In 15-20 years, we might be able to get whole organs, he added.

Willson’s team took an approach she described as “step-wise,” starting by working to address the criteria laid out in the challenge.  First, they researched viable shapes, and settled on a gyrated shape.  Then, they looked at the best gel to grow and expand, and landed on using a modified gelatin, which Willson described as not dissimilar from Jell-O.  Finally, the team built a circulation system so that fluids could flow as if it were a tissue existing in a human body.