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"Spin Off" -- The Discovery Files

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Cotton candy machines have inspired a new way to build capillary structures necessary to make full-scale artificial livers, kidneys, bones and other essential organs. While some may call the approach a little crazy, engineers have shown the machines make possible a simple technique to make microfluidic networks that mimic the three-dimensional capillary system in the human body in a cell-friendly fashion.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Putting a new spin on it.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files from the National Science Foundation.

A research lab isn't exactly the place you'd expect to see a cotton candy machine. (Sound effect: carnival music) Ahhh, cotton candy, wispy wonderfulness on a stick. Those fluffy puffy sugar strands have inspired a new way to build capillary structures for artificial organs (Sound effect: final calliope note) -- not that kind.

This story starts with a graduate student doing research on electrospinning, who buys a 40-dollar cotton candy machine to try to spin a network of tiny threads. Now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, Leon Bellan and his team have used this rather unorthodox spinning method to produce a 3-dimensional artificial capillary system that can keep living cells viable and functional for more than a week.

They're not using sugar, but a medically safe polymer with a special property: It stays solid, insoluble, at temps above 89.6 degrees. Below that, it "dissolves" or becomes soluble. The material is spun, and a warm gelatin mixture containing human cells is poured over it. As it cools, the "cotton candy" polymer fibers dissolve, leaving a matrix of channels just like real capillaries.

Might sound "a little crazy," but for creating cell-friendly artificial organ components, the "cotton candy" spinning technique has already proven to be a dramatic improvement.


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