Although cotton candy itself might not sound like a cure-all, it sure does taste good. While it’s not good for your waistline, there is a silver lining. The good news is that the machine used to make this sweet treat might just be the cure that helps millions of people around the globe.
Cotton candy gets its name from its appearance and texture. Ironically developed by a dentist, the candy was originally produced for introduction at the World’s Fair and has been going strong ever since. A favorite at festivals and carnivals around the nation, cotton candy is nothing but sugar that is spun into a web of tastiness. The machine that creates the delicious candy might be the answer that medical professionals have been looking for.
When engineers from Vanderbilt University were looking for a device to demonstrate how the human capillary system works, they turned to the cotton candy machine. They hoped to use the machine to dissect how the capillary system worked and then to develop a machine to spin hydrogels (a biomaterial that functions much like human tissue) in the same manner. The machine researchers wish to create will extend the life of artificially created organs while they are in the laboratory being tested. It might sound confusing, so let’s break it down.
How does a cotton candy machine work?
In the year 1897, John C. Warton and William Morrison developed a candy machine in Nashville, Tennessee that could spin sugar into candy. Instead of using sugar by traditionally pan-melting it, Warton and Morrison made a machine that melted the sugar by using an electric heating base of a funnel that was shaped like a dish. The machine rotated the sugar rapidly and spun the sugar syrup into tiny little holes using a process called centrifugal force. There was an outer bowl used to catch the threads of sugar as they cooled down. Skillfully scooping out the sugary cotton-like treat resulted in what we now call cotton candy. The machines have only advanced since then.
What might the cotton candy machine do for science?
There is hope that cotton candy machines might be the key to figuring out how to keep artificial organs alive in the lab by delivering fluids to the cells. This would happen by running the much-needed fluid continuously through the organ. Leon Bellan, the Mechanical Engineer heading up the research, believes that the way a cotton candy machine spins its sugar is the perfect way to create a three-dimensional system that operates similarly to the human capillary system.
Bellan’s epiphany came when he was in graduate school. His professors continually used the idea of artificial organ cells needing an electrospun fiber network that had the appearance of cheese whiz or silly string. Visions of cotton candy came to his mind, and the idea of using the machine that makes it, soon became the target.
Many naysayers believe that using the cotton candy machine for medical advancement is nothing more than child’s play and that researchers are too optimistic about their assumption that the machine might be the key to keeping artificial organs alive. On the flip side, an article recently published by Advanced Healthcare Materials showed that a microfluidic network (like the one a cotton candy machine can create) can potentially keep cells living for over a week. If that is true, the machine would be a huge improvement over current techniques.
What can this machine can potentially do?
If researchers can use the cotton candy machine concept to build a machine that works similarly by supply living cells the fluid they need to keep artificial organs alive, then it could potentially revolutionize the world of medicine. No longer dependent on organ donors, researchers could make self-sustaining organs and completely overhaul the entire organ transport system, thereby saving lives.
So, although cotton candy is nothing more than sugar and will probably not save anyone’s life unless they are dying of a sugar fix, the machine that creates the candy might unlock the secret to keeping organs alive. If researchers can figure out a way to design a system to keep artificial organs alive in a lab while working on them, it might be the answer to saving millions of lives. The key to that system might be in a favorite fair treat: cotton candy.