Synthetic Capillary Networks for Artificial Organs Developed Using Cotton-Candy Machine

Engineers at Vanderbilt University used a cotton-candy machine to create networks of threads that work like capillaries and can be used as the basis for artificial organs and bones

Researchers have found another use for a cotton-candy machine beyond just spinning sweets for kids at carnivals. A team of engineers at Vanderbilt University worked with this type of machine to create networks of threads that work like capillaries and can be used as the basis for artificial organs and bones.

Leon Bellan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, said he began working with a cotton-candy machine several years ago as a graduate student. He used a process called electrospinning to make nanofibers to form nanochannels, which led him to the idea that it could be used to form artificial capillary system, he told Design News.

During his research Bellan said that by chance he spoke with a reconstructive surgeon, who mentioned that a major hurdle in the field of tissue engineering was the difficulty of building a vascular network.  

“I figured that my nanofibers and nanochannels looked like capillaries, but were too small, so I had the idea to try cotton candy instead,” he said in an interview. Bellan paid about $40 for his first machine at a local Target store.  

His team eventually built a custom fiber-spinning device to makes fibers from solution for their latest research -- a paper about which has been published in Advanced Healthcare Materials -- but it is still “effectively a cotton candy machine,” Bellan added.

bio cotton candy
A three-dimensional slab of gelatin that contains a microvascular network. A team of researchers at Vanderbilt University used a cotton candy machine to develop these artificial capillary networks that can be used as the basis for artificial organs and other types of human tissue. (Bellan Lab / Vanderbilt)

Using this machine, Bellan and his team have successfully produced a three-dimensional artificial capillary system that can keep living cells viable and functional for more than a week, marking a significant improvement over current methods to do similar work, he said.

“Because we can build 3D vascular networks, we can keep cells alive in thick engineered tissue,” Bellan said. “This development enables the production of tissue of arbitrary thickness. Without channels, the tissue thickness is limited to roughly the thickness of a few human hairs.”  

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The solutions that the custom machine uses to build these networks are water-based gels, or hydrogels. Researchers in the bioengineering field are eyeing as the way forward for tissue engineering, using them as scaffolds to support cells within 3D artificial organs, they said. Hydrogels are an optimal material because scientists can tune their properties to mimic closely those of the

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