Cotton candy isn't the sort of thing one expects to see featured in the "health" section, unless it's an article on cavities. But, according to a paper published last week in the journal Soft Matter, discussed in this article and this NPR interview the sticky, sugary, carnival favorite might just inspire a medical breakthrough.
Two researchers, Jason Spector of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Leon Bellan of Cornell University, realized that the tangled fibers of cotton candy resembled capillaries, the tiny blood vessels that nourish internal organs and other tissues. So they decided to make their own. To recreate these tiny pathways, Spector and Bellan poured a liquid polymer over a piece of cotton candy, let it harden, and then washed away the sugary strands of candy. The channels which result are very similar in size and spacing to real capillaries. They've even demonstrated that blood can flow through the tiny tubes, successfully pumping rat blood through the network, as seen in this video (different from the one below) - http://www.rsc.org/suppdata/SM/b8/b819905a/b819905a-v3.mpg.
As cool as this idea is, there's a ton of work that still needs to be done. Spector and Bellan are now trying to transition from what is essentially a plastic mold to an artificial tissue. They want to create biodegradable casts of the cotton candy fibers and coat the walls of these with blood vessel cells, then allow the cast to die away leaving only the artificial tissue. And even after they achieve that, they'll need to find a way to manipulate the random tangle of channels to connect into the rest of the circulatory system. This is by no means an easy process, and testing on animals remains a long way off.
Still, the benefit would be enormous for applications including skin grafts, reconstructive surgeries, and even artificial organs. Scientists' ability to recreate complex organs has been limited by the inability to match the efficiency of complex nets of capillaries in nourishing them and disposing of waste. The ability to build artificial capillaries would open the door for all sorts of complex synthetic organs.
Now, I've heard of biomimicry: engineers drawing on systems, processes, and substances found in organisms for inspiration in solving human problems. In fact, there are many cool examples of nature-inspired innovation. But I'm having trouble thinking of other examples in which something as distinctly human as cotton candy has been behind the creation of something for biological use, turning biomimicry on its head. Sure, some successful replacement body parts have been made, but they're usually modeled more or less directly on the body part they are designed to replace, not on some human invention. The extra measure of creativity on display here is truly remarkable.
I look forward to seeing the research on these cotton candy capillaries go forward. And I'll be really impressed when someone finds a medical application for the deep-fried Twinkie.
Author's Note: This article was posted to the Science Chicago blog by Tim, one of our correspondents.
Editor's Note: For more blogs from Dr. Rabiah, visit Science Chicago's website at: http://www.sciencechicagoblog.com