Before we can travel and colonize Mars (which probably won’t happen for the next 2 or 3 decades), NASA is taking no chances when it comes to medical science and the possibility of being far from earth’s hospitals. NASA is offering a challenge to any science or medical team to create thick, metabolically functional human vascularized organ tissue in a controlled lab setting. The contest is called the Vascular Tissue Challenge, and the first three teams to succeed will split a total prize money of $500,000 (if only one team succeeds, they get the full prize). Since vast resources will be needed for the trip and eventual colonization of Mars, NASA is making sure it protects the most important resource of all: Humans. Since space travel takes a toll on the human body, not to mention the high probability of accidents that may happen on Mars, vascular tissue or functional human tissue substitutes are needed.
The NASA challenge is in partnership with the non-profit Methuselah Foundation’s New Organ Alliance. Basically, it is attempting to create regenerative functional human tissue in order to improve regenerative medicine not only for Mars but also on Earth. The nearest thing in relation to this in popular science fiction films is the skin and tissue grafting and healing scenes used in the 2013 film, Elysium starring Matt Damon (who incidentally would star later on in the 2015 film, The Martian, about an exploratory trip to Mars). Related cells that are joined together are collectively referred to as tissue, and these cells work together as organs to accomplish specific functions in the human body. Blood vessels around the cells vascularize, providing nutrients to the tissue to keep it healthy. The vascularized, thick-tissue models resulting from this challenge will function as organ analogs, or models, that can be used to study deep space environmental effects, such as radiation, and to develop strategies to minimize the damage to healthy human cells.
Studying these effects will help create ways to prevent negative effects of space travel on humans during long duration, deep space missions. On Earth, the vascularized tissue could be used in pharmaceutical testing or disease modeling. The challenge also could accelerate new research and development in the field of organ transplants. Competitors must produce vascularized tissue that is more than one centimeter in thickness and maintains more than 85 percent survival rate of the required cells through a rigid 30-day trial period. Teams must demonstrate three successful trials with at least a 75 percent success rate to win an award. In addition to the laboratory trials, teams must also submit a proposal that details how they would further advance some aspect of their research through a microgravity experiment that could be conducted in the U.S. National Laboratory on the International Space Station. Success of this challenge and research will definitely go a long way in improving medical science along the lines of tissue transplants.