How Cotton Candy Machines Will Soon Save Lives

Cotton candy may save your life. Or, to be more specific, it is the machine that makes cotton candy that is the life-saver.
February 10, 2016, 8:00pm

Cotton candy—a.k.a. candy floss, tooth floss, and fairy floss—is a type of spun sugar that you might guess is good for nothing other than inducing sugar comas in whining children and providing an on-the-go source of colorful wigs.

We're pleased to tell you that that is not, in fact, the case.

Cotton candy may save your life. Or, to be more specific, it is the machine that makes cotton candy that is the lifesaver.

Engineers at Vanderbilt University have developed a technique for modifying cotton-candy machines so that they can create a complicated network that mimics the human capillary system. In doing so, the scientists hope to spin artificial capillary systems out of hydrogels. These systems can then be used to support artificial organs while they are being created. No pink, fluffy sugar bombs here.

You see, to make artificial organs, scientists have to build a type of scaffolding that keeps cells alive by allowing fluids to run through the system—and that's what the cotton-candy-machine-generated stuff can do. Professor Leon Bellan of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Vanderbilt recognized the similarity of spun sugar to capillaries, the thin-walled vessels that keep our organs alive by delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells, while they carry away waste.

"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." According to an article published by the Advanced Healthcare Materials journal, the system can keep living cells alive and well for more than a week, apparently a "dramatic improvement" over current capabilities.

Bellan's eureka moment came in graduate school. "The analogies everyone uses to describe electrospun fibers [needed to support artificial organ cells] are that they look like silly string, or Cheese Whiz, or cotton candy," he said. "So I decided to give the cotton candy machine a try. I went to Target and bought a cotton candy machine for about $40."

You just never know what the people in line at Target have in store for the crap they have in their carts, do you?

Bellan hopes his cotton-candy-machine creation will make a difference, and even save lives: "Our goal is to create a basic 'toolbox' that will allow other researchers to use this simple, low-cost approach to create the artificial vasculature needed to sustain artificial livers, kidneys, bone and other organs," he said.