We’ve written before about scientists’ attempts to create artificial organs that could help cure chronic diseases. But every attempt to grow human organs has had one major hurdle to overcome: weaving functional blood vessels into the tissue to bring it the blood and nutrients it needs to survive. One researcher at Vanderbilt University, Leon Bellan, has come up with an unusual answer to the problem. He uses cotton candy to create functional capillaries within networks of cells.
Traditionally, scientists have allowed cultured cells to spontaneously develop capillary systems of their own, a process which can take weeks and prevents cells from being stacked together while the vessels develop. (Without functional capillaries, the tissue in the center suffocates.) That’s why Bellan decided to try a top-down approach instead, building vessels into the fabric of his lab-grown tissue from the very start.
As it turns out, the perfect tool for helping this microscopic network of artificial blood vessels develop is cotton candy. The sugary treat is made up of very thin strands of sugar, less than 10 microns wide — about the same size as naturally-occurring capillaries in living tissue. Bellan spins his own special “cotton candy” mixture using ordinary sugar and a special polymer to help the strands keep their shape when moistened. His team places the strands inside a gelatin mold, where it forms thin passages within the gel that can later be dissolved with an enzyme solution.
Then, cells can be grown within the gel. The resulting cubes of cells are able to survive for over a week, significantly longer than the results researchers have been able to achieve with other methods. Not a bad outcome considering that the cotton candy machines he’s using in his research retail for only $40 each.