Who says science can’t be delicious? Leon Bellan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, is developing a way to make artificial blood vessels using a modified cotton candy machine. 

Bellan began his research on a bit of a whim. As a graduate student, he was inspired to start working with cotton candy machines during a lecture. “The analogies everyone uses to describe electrospun fibers are that they look like silly string, or Cheese Whiz, or cotton candy,” he explained in a press release. “I went to Target and bought a cotton candy machine for about $40. It turned out that it formed threads that were about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair—roughly the same size as capillaries—so they could be used to make channel structures in other materials.”

According to research published last week in Advanced Healthcare Materials, Bellan and his team developed a method of crafting capillaries that can be used to bring nutrients and oxygen to artificial organs. The trick, he explained, was finding the right material to make his “cotton candy” capillaries. Many researchers currently use water-based gels called hydrogels to support the living cells within artificial organs. Real cotton candy is made of sugar, which is water soluble, meaning it dissolves when it comes into contact with hydrogel. Bellan managed to find a polymer called PNIPAM which dissolves only at specific temperatures so that its dissolution can be controlled. 

“First, the material has to be insoluble in water when you make the mold so it doesn’t dissolve when you pour the gel," Bellan says. “Then it must dissolve in water to create the microchannels, because cells will only grow in aqueous environments.” 

Learn more about the research in the video below.

[h/t Futurity]