Signed up for a trip to the Moon, Mars or even the newly discovered earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri? To be an astronaut of the future, you’re going to need a thick skin. NASA’s latest challenge will go someway to giving you that…

The Vascular Tissue Challenge was announced in mid-June 2016 offering a USD500,000 prize to teams who could create thick vascularised organ tissue in a controlled lab environment. Behind the challenge is everyone’s favourite (except maybe Russia and China) space organisation – NASA along with the New Organ Alliance and the Methuselah Foundation whose roots lie in funding research and initiatives into anti-ageing.

To be in with a chance of winning the prize the contestants will need to create vascular  tissue ie. sustained by a capillary network; that is at least 1cm (0.39 inches) thick, with at least 85% of the cells surviving for 30 days. The prize will be shared amongst the first three teams to achieve this and part of the challenge will be funded to test the results on the ISS.

The premise of the challenge lays behind NASA’s forward thinking outlook onto mankind’s journey into deep space and increasing the survivability of its pioneers against its negative effects. To be candid, there are quite a few negative effects, lack of oxygen, colder than a Siberian winter and meteorites to name but a few. In this instance, the adversaries to mankind, NASA and the VTC teams will be looking to mitigate against harmful UV radiation in the depths of space and Alpha and Beta radiation that will be sprayed up by more energetic cosmic rays from unprotected surfaces like Mars.

Today’s astronauts are relatively well shielded against most of the effects of radiation, with the ISS itself screening out most of what the Earth’s own protective fields (which extend many thousands of kilometres into space) let slip through. Interestingly, the ISS sits in a sweet spot of space called the South Atlantic Anomaly where a weakening in the magnetic field exposes the station to increased radiation for a few minutes on a near daily basis. This will likely present the most opportune time to test the vascularised tissue in as close to a deep space environment that current facilities can provide.

It’s too soon to say how any breakthroughs will be applied to space faring humans. It’s unlikely that you would be able to swallow a pill and wake up with radiation reflecting skin. A simple, but skin tingling hack, may be the application of tissue grafts which will integrate with existing skin and reproduce.

Where does the Methusaleh Foundation’s interest lie in this venture? Yes, thick space faring skin and organ tissue will indeed preserve the life span of astronauts, but this is a very niche segment of humanity to get involved behind. This endeavour though remains true to Methusaleh’s mission of investing in ‘high-leverage interventions’ in the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Many of mankind’s scientific achievements have been derived from NASA initiatives such as Teflon… lets hope the benefits of this challenge are just as slick.

Interested in writing for us? see the Contact section for details.