Researchers at Vanderbilt University think they have found the key to creating artificial capillaries, livers and other human organs – and it’s all thanks to everyone’s favorite state fair treat, cotton candy.
The results of the team’s research, published in the scientific journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, explains that the scientists, lead by Vanderbilt’s assistant professor of mechanical engineering Leon Bellan, were able to “spin” artificial models of both human organs and veins with a simple $40 cotton candy machine. Inspired by the “fine” nature of cotton candy, which acts as a sort of intricate fiber – or, in the case of the particular way in which cotton candy is produced, “electrospun fiber” – Bellan substituted hydrogel for the edible, cloud-like substance.
“The analogies everyone uses to describe electrospun fibers are that they look like silly string, or Cheese Whiz, or cotton candy,” said Bellan, describing the initial inspiration behind the study in an official statement issued by VU. “So I decided to give the cotton candy machine a try. I went to Target and bought a cotton candy machine for about $40” – and the rest was history.
As per Bellan, the fibrous-like material “formed threads that were about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair – roughly the same size as capillaries – so they could be used to make channel structures in other materials.” Despite the minute nature of the “thread count” – ranging from 3 to 55 microns, with a mean diameter of 35 microns, the durability of the hydrogel makes it an ideal material.
Despite the initial success of Bellan’s tested theory, there are still some detractors – Bellan nods to the fact that the cotton candy machine is a bit of an out-of-left-field approach – but far fewer than before.
“Some people in the field think this approach is a little crazy,” said Bellan, “But now we’ve shown we can use this simple technique to make microfluidic networks that mimic the three-dimensional capillary system in the human body in a cell-friendly fashion. Generally, it’s not that difficult to make two-dimensional networks, but adding the third dimension is much harder; with this approach, we can make our system as three-dimensional as we like.”