JACKI LYDEN, host:
And while we're on the subject of treats, here's another one that could have a big, positive effect on medical technology. It's the subject of an article this week in the scientific journal Soft Matter, engineering human tissue using cotton candy. It's science out of the box.
Two researchers are trying to use cotton candy to create a network of vessels that would carry blood through artificial tissue. Doctor Jason Spector is a reconstructive surgeon at New York Presbyterian hospital. He teamed up with his colleague, Leon Bellan, then a grad student at Cornell, to develop the idea. Their work is still very much and in preliminary stages. But we were intrigued by the idea that something as simple as cotton candy could be used this way.
Doctor Jason Spector joins us from the hospital. Welcome to the program.
Doctor JASON SPECTOR (Reconstructive Surgeon, New York Presbyterian Hospital): Thank you for having me.
LYDEN: So, what's the problem with tissue engineering that you're to solve here?
Dr. SPECTOR: Nobody has been able to figure out how to get a viable network of blood vessels within the tissue engineered constructs. And as you know, without a blood supply, cells will die. So, unless you're talking about something as thin as let's say, the size of a skin graft, which is maybe 12/1000ths of an inch which can survive without a blood supply because it's so thin and the nutrients can diffuse in. Anything thicker than that really, will lead to the death of the cells that are within it. So that's a major obstacle.
LYDEN: What is it about cotton candy that makes it work for these purposes?
Dr. SPECTOR: The fibers that make up the cotton candy really are about the same size as the really small blood vessels within the tissues of our body.
LYDEN: So, where did this come from? Were you eating some cotton candy at the beach?
Dr. SPECTOR: I was actually giving a talk out at Cornell and one of the students who was at my talk, my colleague, Leon Bellan, came up to me afterwards and threw this idea out there that we could potentially use a technique which involved the cotton candy to make these small size vessels that we really need for our tissue and (unintelligible) constructs. And it sort of grew from there.
LYDEN: Explain how it works exactly, would you please?
Dr. SPECTOR: Sure. You start with this network of fibers which can dissolve when put into a proper solvent. In this case, the network is made of melted sucrose which will dissolve when its put into water. So, what we do is we take the cotton candy, cover it with polymer, the polymer will remain after the network is dissolved away and what you're left with is a construct or a block which contains a three-dimensional confluent network of micro fiber channels.
LYDEN: So, is this just regular circus ridey(ph) cotton candy, the stuff anyone can buy?
Dr. SPECTOR: Leon purchased the cotton candy machine we use from one of the local Target-like stores. We plan to upgrade it because that will give us more control over the fiber size. But currently, that's what we're using.
LYDEN: Understandably, you're in a very early stage here in terms of research. But it seems like it could have huge implications for tissue replacement, skin graft and even breast reconstruction.
Dr. SPECTOR: The beautiful part about this process is that it creates a vascular architecture within which any type of steno progenitor cell could theoretically be placed. If you can imagine, if we put progenitor cells which would make fat cells and grow up a piece of tissue in the size and shape of a breast, certainly, that's something that could be used for breast reconstruction. Currently, what we use primarily, especially when we do microsurgical breast reconstruction is we take the lower portion of the tummy which used to be thrown away in a tummy tuck, and now we use that skin and fat and we transplant it to the mastectomy site. So, certainly, this process holds tremendous promise.
LYDEN: Dr. Spector, I have a last question. Has this (unintelligible) the process of eating cotton candy for you?
Dr. SPECTOR: Not at all. I love cotton candy for usually the first two or three bites and then it starts to make me nauseous.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: So, you weren't a big consumer, anyway.
Dr. SPECTOR: Exactly.
LYDEN: Dr. Jason Spector, reconstructive surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital and cotton candy connoisseur. Thanks for stepping out of surgery and speaking with us.
Dr. SPECTOR: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.