Cotton candy may someday fabricate organs, research suggests

In a not-so-shocking scientific twist of fate, your dentist’s worst nightmare may now be your organs’ best hope.

Dr. Leon Bellan, a mechanical engineer from Vanderbilt University, may have created a new and inexpensive way to fabricate capillary beds–the smallest type of blood vessel in the body that keep your tissues alive—using cotton candy and the main ingredient of Jell-O.


The process, as clarified by Dr. Bellan in an email to redOrbit, goes like this: A toy cotton candy machine spins sugar and similar materials into tiny fibers. Then, gelatin is poured on top of it and is allowed to harden. The “cotton candy” is dissolved by changing the pH, leaving behind a multitude of miniscule pathways the size of a thread of spun-sugar—each about 1/10th the size of a strand of hair.

“The gelatin acts as a temporary scaffold that would presumably degrade over time as the host tissue regenerates and invades into the scaffold. It is not meant to last forever, but simply to support ingrowth from the body and cells embedded in the scaffold prior to implant,” he explained.

The struggle is real, but this may help

Dr. Bellan believes this could be fast, inexpensive a solution for patients who wait months to years on the transplant list. Scientists have been struggling to engineer organs because anything with thick tissue needs capillary beds to keep all the cells alive, which hasn’t been achieved yet. So these artificial capillaries could be used to build new organs containing cells from the patients, with Dr. Bellan anticipating fabrication of the capillary beds being taking 24 hours or less with newer materials.

And unlike with 3D printers attempting similar goals, the equipment and materials are vastly less expensive. Gelatin is cheap and likewise, his machines won’t break the bank. “Instead of paying thousands or millions or tens of millions of dollars for a piece of equipment, we pay $40,” he said in a statement.

The next step Dr. Bellan is working on is lining these pathways with human tissue cells, and then after that, seeing how a human body would react to it. “We need to see if we can get a real vascular network to integrate with our artificial capillary network inside these tissue-engineered constructs.”

A promising discovery from a man who considers cotton candy “disgusting”.


Feature Image: Thinkstock