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A Cotton Candy Machine Helps These Scientists Grow Human Cells

Cell structures on a stick.

Biological engineers are developing a method for regrowing human tissue that's straight out of a macabre carnival.

Hak-Joon Sung and Leon Bellan at Vanderbilt University developed a novel method of spinning capillary-sized polymer fibers out of a cotton candy machine, as part of their work in growing artificial human tissue.

Their work focuses on rebuilding damaged tissue in the heart, brain, blood vessels or other parts of the body, the scientists explain in a National Science Foundation video. One of the biggest hurdles in developing viable tissue is making the scaffolding on which cells live. Capillaries, the smallest type of blood vessel which are 10 times thinner than a human hair, are that support structure for blood throughout our bodies. Cells stick close to those capillaries—within a hair's distance or less—in order to get oxygen or nutrients.

The size of fibers flung out of a cotton candy machine are very close to the size of capillaries, the researchers found. Polymer fibers spin out of the machine, which are then hardened in a hydrogel, a jelly-like material, and dissolved away. What's left are capillary-like chambers, which they can grow cells around.

Using a circus appliance to grow human tissue sounds like horror fodder, but being able to build such delicate structures artificially is a step toward grown-on-demand regenerative organs and tissue.