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Cotton Candy May Help Grow Tissue

New York (Apr 27, 2010)

Girl with cotton candy

When doctors need to replace damaged tissue caused by injury or disease, they often transplant tissue from another part of the body to the compromised site (known as a graft). The only problem with tissue grafts is that the transplanted tissue needs to grow new blood vessels in order to survive, and this can take some time. With larger grafts, this is particularly difficult and often unsuccessful. However, researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian are working to grow human tissue outside of the body that is able to have its own blood supply, making it more easily accepted by the body. To create the artificial blood vessels, the researchers used something that is similar in size and shape to the small blood vessels in the body – cotton candy.

How This Works:

In a laboratory, the cotton candy fibers are coated with a thicker, stronger substance made from silicone (a polymer), which is biocompatible but not biodegradable (meaning that it can stay within the body safely and does not break down). "When this structure is placed into water, the cotton candy melts away, leaving an intricate, fine, three-dimensionally enmeshed architecture of microchannels that is similar to blood vessels in the body's tissue," explains Jason Spector, M.D., an Assistant Attending Plastic Surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, an Assistant Professor of Plastic Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, and the scientist in charge of the research.

Dr. Jason SpectorJason Spector, M.D.

In a study published in 2009, Dr. Spector and colleagues successfully showed that blood could be made to flow through the microchannels. There is still a challenge though. Because blood clots as soon as it is outside of the body, Dr. Spector is now working to line the inside of the microchannels with endothelial cells (the thin layer of cells that line all blood vessels in the body), which would prevent the blood from clotting. Once he has perfected the endothelial lining, he will add human progenitor cells to the structure, which are cells normally found in the body that are able to divide and multiply to replace damaged or dead cells. In theory, the blood flowing through the microchannels will nourish the cells growing around them and support this living tissue. The tissue that grows could then be used for a variety of surgeries ranging from skin grafts to breast reconstruction.

"For decades, the lack of a suitable blood supply has been the major limitation of tissue engineering," Dr. Spector said. "Without a network of blood vessels, only small, thin swaths of engineered tissue [can live] in the body," he explained. Tissue that is any thicker than approximately 1 mm is too thick to survive for the two to three days that is necessary for the tissue to grow its own blood supply from the body.

Tissue Could be Used in Medication Trials

If the endothelial-lined microchannels are able to keep human cells alive, Dr. Spector believes the engineered tissue also could be used to test how human cells respond to different medications. For example, human cancer cells could be grown in the structure and then used to examine the effects of cancer drugs (chemotherapy). This type of testing would reduce the need to use animals for testing drugs and would give a better sense of how human cells inside of the body react to a medication.

Why Cotton Candy?

Dr. Spector said that in addition to the right fiber size, cotton candy was perfect for use in this research because it is inexpensive and easy to make. In fact, he had a carnival-type cotton candy machine installed in his laboratory for the research.

Dr. Spector currently is experimenting with other types of fibers and polymers to determine what works best. Specifically, he is trying to find the best polymer that will biodegrade (break down in the body) allowing the body to build its own vessels in the tissue. These preliminary results offer hope to the field of tissue engineering as well as many aspects of medical care.

Contributing faculty for this article:

Jason A. Spector, M.D., is an Assistant Attending Plastic Surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and an Assistant Professor of Plastic Surgery and Director of the Laboratory of Bioregenerative Medicine and Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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