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Cotton candy machines are best known for spinning threads of brightly colored sugar, but biological engineers at Vanderbilt University have found a much more scientific use for them. Instead of sugar and sweet treats, these researchers are using cotton candy machines to create human cells.
Leon Bellan of Vanderbilt University has been working with cotton candy machines for quite some time, ever since he discovered that the threads these machines spin from sugar are very similar in size and density to capillaries found in the human body. He has now confirmed that they have succeeded in creating a multi-dimensional, artificial capillary system that can sustain living human cells for over one week.
The method uses hydrogels to create the cells. Hydrogels are water-based and have a similar texture to that of hair styling gel. This substance is attractive to researchers because it has a similar makeup of the fluid-like surroundings of human cells within the body. While hydrogels allow water-soluble substances to pass through as they should, oxygen and nutrients can only travel so far through the gel. Therefore, it was important to create a system that was as lifelike as possible in order to allow travel and transfer of the necessary nutrients, and to ultimately sustain the life of human cells.
“The analogies everyone uses to describe electrospun fibers are that they look like silly string, or Cheese Whiz, or cotton candy,” said Bellan. “So I decided to give the cotton candy machine a try. I went to Target and bought a cotton candy machine for about $40. It turned out that it 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.”
Although the experiment required much trial and error, the team ultimately found a solution that satisfied all of the requirement for sustaining human life through artificial means. By using a specific polymer that has the unique quality of being soluble only in temperatures below 32 degrees celsius, they found a “cell-friendly” solution in which the capillary-like threads could form.
Bellan and his team at Vanderbilt University are now looking to fine tune the method and create a “toolbox” for other researchers to use. They hope to see this research used to sustain artifical organs of all kinds, from lungs to kidneys.