(Source: Paramount Pictures)
3D tissues could replace damage astronaut tissues on long flights, be used as test models on Earth

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has produced great breakthroughs in recent years, but has also struggled to keep pace with shrinking budgets.  Such struggles forced NASA to see painful changes, such as the mothballing of the aging shuttle fleet before a true successor had been found.  But they have also provided opportunity as NASA has leaned increasingly on private sector partners to deliver innovative services.
Some NASA contracts are worth literally tens of billions of dollars -- such as the cargo and manned flight contracts NASA has drafted with Elon Musk's SpaceX.  Others are more of an informal measure, with hundreds of thousands of dollars -- if anything -- changing hands.
We recently discussed one such effort, with Bigelow Aerospace agreeing to a memorandum of understanding to brainstorm with NASA about creating a long-term Moon colony based on inflatable modules.
Now another interesting collaboration has popped up.  NASA has signed agreements with GRoK Technologies LLC, a Houston, Texas-based research and development startup, to grow human tissues.  (Note: There's a similarly named, but unaffiliated bioinformatics company called GroK Solutions -- beware.)

Connective tissues
GroK will seek to develop 3D tissues of various human tissue types such as bone or muscle.
[Image Source: Pearson Education]

The "living" (sort of) 3D models planned would first provide valuable medical research models on Earth, potentially allowing testing of drugs on humans and tissue study without the ethical concerns of testing on humans or apes not grown in a test tube.

In a press release NASA suggests that if things go well, even more impressive gains could be had when the technology is applied to space flight.  In particular, the 3D tissues developed could be used as grafts to replace damaged tissue in astronauts during long missions. Comments the space agency:

NASA is interested in the potential these technologies present for regenerating bone and muscle. During long spaceflights, astronauts are susceptible to developing osteopenia, which is a condition arising from the loss of bone and muscle mass and bone density. The patented technologies could help GRoK develop breakthrough products for the research and medical communities and advance our overall understanding of biomedicine.

Yolanda Marshall directs the Strategic Opportunities and Partnership Development Office (SOPDO) at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.  Her office is tasked with reaching out to private sector partners such as GRoK to perform mutually beneficial low-cost, high impact research.

She comments on the new deal:

Biotechnology research taking place on the International Space Station and at NASA centers around the country continues to push the leading edge of science.  This partnership will further enhance NASA's ability to share the unique breakthroughs made in space-based research.

GRoK will work on two projects as part of the deal.  The first -- dubbed "BioReplicates" -- represents its first crack at the aforementioned 3D model of various human tissues, particularly those that are damaged during long space flights, such as bone and muscle.  A second project, dubbed "Scionic," aims to tap into nerves and the hormonal system to offer pain and inflammation relief without the sometimes-ineffective pharmaceuticals used today.
The Texas startup was cofounded by a Californian lawyer, Moshe J. Kushman, JD, MBA.  Mr. Kushman currently serves as the company's CEO.  He comments on the new deal:

The GRoK team is delighted we are now a NASA licensee with the opportunity to bring forward into the commercial sector technologies that have the capacity to improve the lives of people everywhere.  It's not just science fiction anymore. All indications are that 21st century life sciences will change dramatically during the next several decades, and GRoK is working to define the forefront of a new scientific wave.

GRoK’s other two co-founders are both former Johnson Space Center research veterans -- Professor Thomas J. Goodwin, Ph.D (physiology, bioengineering) and Dr. Linda C. Shackelford (orthopedic surgeon).
The press release from NASA does not mention whether the deal involves any funding.  If it does, such contracts are typically small in government terms, constituting at most a couple million dollars.  However, partners gain certain other advantages, such as having access to NASA research staff to bounce ideas off of, unpublished NASA research data, and NASA facilities.

NASA's Johnson Space Center
NASA's Johnson Space Center is a home for space research and relics alike.

The JSC facility is known as the training site for NASA's astronauts, and is one of ten major NASA facilities nationwide.  It is named in honor of the late U.S. president and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Source: NASA [press release]

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