Cotton candy gets a bad rap. The irresistible, brightly colored cloud of sugar is notorious for sending kids into hyperactive overdrive and wreaking havoc on teeth. While it’s most typically found at a state fair or at a sports stadium, cotton candy is now popping up at the lab bench and is re-branding itself into a useful tool that will help scientists develop artificial blood vessels for lab-grown organs.
How is this sticky, sweet substance transitioning from stomachs to the lab? The answer comes from a Professor at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Leon Bellan. He develops 3D microfluidic materials for biomedical applications. Recently he and his students have tackled an obstacle that has plagued the fields of tissue engineering and 3D organ modeling – making enough blood vessels to keep engineered organs alive. The story was covered by the blog Inhabitat.
Scientists are using 3D organoids or “mini-organs” derived from stem cells to model organ development and human disease in a dish. While methods to make organoids have advanced to the point where various cell types of an organ are generated, these organoids do not develop a proper capillary system – a distribution of blood vessels that allows blood to bring water, oxygen and nutrients to tissue cells. Inevitably, cells located in the center of organoids die because they don’t have access to life-saving nutrients that the cells at the surface do.
Bellan came up with a sweet solution to this problem. His team discovered that you can use cotton candy to make an artificial capillary system. Conveniently, the strands of cotton candy are similar in size to human blood vessels. Bellan and his team “spin” cotton candy fibers to generate a network of sugar strands that are held in place with a special polymer. Then, they pour a gelatinous mold over the strands, let that harden, and dissolve the sugar with an enzyme solution. What’s left is an intricate network of channels that are similar to the human capillary system.
Free of cotton candy, these artificial channels are now ready to be turned into functioning human capillaries. Bellan and his team were able to grow human endothelial cells (the cells that line your blood vessels) in these channels. The cells in these artificial blood vessels are able to survive for over a week.
Their work is still preliminary but Bellan is excited about their technology’s potential for tissue engineering applications. In a video interview, he explained:
“We’re really try to attack a fundamental hurdle for the entire field. The sci-fi version would be that you would like to be able to build an organ from scratch.”
Hopefully, Bellan and his group will be able to turn their sweet dream into a reality and help scientists develop properly functioning artificial organs that can be transplanted into humans.
To learn more about this fascinating technique, check out this video: