Searching for a way to make artificial blood vessels, a bioengineer found inspiration in a cotton candy machine.

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt
Updated May 24, 2017
© SAQUIZETA / Alamy Stock Photo

Cotton candy is just sugar and artificial coloring. There's nothing healthy about it, unless you count the air between the strands. But the century-old technique of spinning sugar into sweet floss could soon save lives, writes doctor-journalist Robert Glatter in Forbes. Cotton candy machines are capable of weaving incredibly thin fibers that, it turns out, closely resemble the intricate networks of capillaries that make up our circulatory systems. With the right materials, a similar method could help construct artificial organs.

The idea was an epiphany for Leon Bellan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University. According to Glatter's piece, Bellan's discovery came when he decided to take a common bioengineering comparison to its literal conclusion. “The analogies everyone uses to describe electrospun fibers are that they look like silly string, or Cheese Whiz, or cotton candy,” said Bellan. “So I decided to give the cotton candy machine a try. 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.”

At that point, another sweet treat enters the hypothetical process: Jell-O. Once the machine has spun its spindly web, it's encased in a gelatin. The fibers are then dissolved, leaving behind a mold of incredibly thin tubes that could serve as an artificial network of capillaries. You won't be surprised to learn that this procedure isn't quite ready to help bioengineers manufacture prosthetic lungs and kidneys, but the story might inspire greater appreciation of that sweet, pink cloud of sugar that we all thought was nothing but junk food.