Cotton Candy Machines May Hold The Answer For Building Artificial Organs

Article Featured on FORBES | By Robert Glatter

It’s been said that innovation often happens when you least expect it.

And sometimes, a discovery is staring right at you—but you just have to take a deeper look to appreciate it.

In this case, the machine that makes one of the most popular carnival treats–cotton candy–may hold the key to building and sustaining microfiber networks, the complex network of capillaries that are integral for supplying oxygen and removing waste from vital organs such as the kidney and liver.

Leon Bellan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt, set out to solve the problem of building an artificial framework of blood vessels to support vital organs and in the process figured out that a cotton candy machine was ideal because the threads of the sugary confection provide an ideal thickness that simulates a human capillary.

Building a Viable Blood Supply: The Holy Grail

But constructing such a network of capillaries to nourish the thick tissue of a solid organ (kidney or liver or bone) has been an ongoing challenge, and a major barrier for realizing the coveted rewards of artificial organs. The highly vascular network is akin to a living and breathing organ with a high metabolic requirement that is not unlike supporting a miniature planet.

 In fact, 3D printing as an approach to building a capillary network was reported last year using so-called “bioinks” of varying consistency to lay down a matrix in which small blood vessels close to the size of capillaries would be capable of nourishing small tissue beds.

The 3D Advantage

Bellan’s long-term goal has been to produce 3D templates of such microfiber networks that are suitable to support the nutritional and vascular requirements of major organs in the body. Achieving a 2D network is just not sustainable from a physiologic standpoint.

And the reward is far-reaching: If you can reliably produce intricate 3D microfiber networks, then you can sustain artificially constructed or lab-grown organs for long periods of time, bridging the gap before such a transplant is done.

In fact, Bellan and his research team report a remarkable advance—creating a 3D microfluidic network able to maintain living cells viable and healthy for one week outside the body–using this unconventional approach applied from a simple cotton candy machine. This represents a significant advance in longevity over more traditional methods currently under study.

His team’s research was published February 4 in the Advanced Healthcare Materials Journal.

“Some people in the field think this approach is a little crazy,” said Bellan, “But now we’ve shown we can use this simple technique to make microfluidic networks that mimic the three-dimensional capillary system in the human body in a cell-friendly fashion. Generally, it’s not that difficult to make two-dimensional networks, but adding the third dimension is much harder; with this approach, we can make our system as three-dimensional as we like.

Water- based gels, known as hydrogels, have been the main focus and approach to tissue engineering as a vascular network to nourish and support 3D organs. Similar to hair gels, they allow the diffusion and movement of molecules in and out of the tiny capillaries, and have properties that are ideal for an extracellular matrix (ECM), the substance of the underlying capillary beds.

While such hydrogels can support diffusion throughout the ECM, it’s quite limited because oxygen, nutrients and other waste products can only travel so far. Having the cells close together, less than the width of a human hair, allows for the diffusion or movement of such compounds and promotes a functional environment.

Keeping engineered tissues and organs alive rests upon the creation of a specialized network of capillaries that can nourish the tissues and remove detrimental waste at the same time.

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