His colleagues were skeptical, but this odd idea may help us grow new organs one day.

We don’t have enough kidneys.

There are more than 100,000 people in the United States waiting on a kidney transplant to save their lives. Unfortunately, they may be waiting a long time — the median wait is over three years. For some people, it may be even longer.

“It’s been extremely difficult,” Amber Reynolds said in an interview. Her mom, Nitrinda “Renay” Reynolds, has been on the kidney waiting list since 2010. Her mom, a school teacher in Acworth, Georgia, had to stop working in September 2012 after too many complications. “Every year, we say this is the year. And now we’re six years in,” said Amber.

A dialysis machine is, unfortunately, a familiar companion for many people. Image from Irvin calicut/Wikimedia Commons.

One hundred thousand people. That’s not even counting the number of people who need livers, lungs, or other organs. And though more than 120 million people are signed up to be organ donors, more than 20 people still die every day waiting for organ transplants.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just grow a new kidney or liver for someone? That’s the idea behind artificial organs. And we do have a few — like artificial hearts — but more complicated organs still need a lot of work before we can use them in people.

We may have a new secret weapon in the great quest for lab-grown organs: cotton candy.

Image from Morgan/Flickr.

Yup, cotton candy. Or, more accurately, the machines that make it.

GIF from Vanderbilt University/YouTube.

Professor Leon Bellan and his team at Vanderbilt University are using these cotton candy machines — the same ones you might buy your kid at Target for $39.99 — to build better organs for people who need them.

“Fun for the whole family,” reads the product description, though it’s unlikely the cotton candy machine manufacturers were thinking of this use when they wrote it.

Here’s where things get a little gross. You see, this all has to do with blood.

Your circulatory system is kind of like an internal highway system.

There’s an interstate of big, high-capacity vessels. But people don’t really live on the interstate. Instead, traffic flows onto smaller streets and neighborhood roads, where the cars can actually pick up people or drop them off. These are your capillaries.

Without capillaries, any large artificial organ is not going to be able to transport the necessary oxygen or nutrients to its cells.

A tuft of cotton candy looks a lot like a tuft of capillaries.

“Some people in the field think this approach is a little crazy,” said Bellan. Many other researchers are a little suspicious of something that can look so messy. But after years of work, Bellan’s idea is paying off.

To make the artificial organs, the researchers use the cotton candy machine and a special temperature-sensitive polymer to make a bit of pseudo-cotton-candy fluff. Then, they pour a goopy mix of cells and gelatin over the fluff mold. Once it sets, they can adjust the temperature to dissolve the temperature-sensitive polymer threads.

When those threads dissolve, they end up with a big block of cells with a bunch of very fine, very delicate tunnels running through it — kind of like what an organ looks like in real life!

This is what the capillaries in Bellan’s gelatin organs look like zoomed in. GIF from Vanderbilt University/YouTube.

This could be a huge tool for anyone who wants to build an organ.

And this is what Bellan’s gelatin organs look like zoomed out. Image from Bellan Lab/Vanderbilt University.

This cotton candy method has some key advantages over other attempts. For one, scientists can make the gelatin organs a lot thicker, which could be a big step toward getting them to work like real organs.

And the cells seem pretty happy too — the researchers found that the cells were still up and running even a week after the organ was made.

There’s still more work to do, of course. Researchers’ next steps will be to try to help the tunnels work more like real blood vessels, to try the technique with a couple different types of cells, and to get the cells to act more like a real organ. But for now, it’s significant just to know that they’ve demonstrated the potential of their technique.

“We’re trying to develop a toolbox,” Bellan told Upworthy. He and his colleagues want to give both the research and medical communities an entirely new suite of tools that can be used for building real, effective artificial organs.

Imagine a world without a waiting list for an organ transplant. Imagine a world where people don’t have to wait years to be healthy.

Wouldn’t that be something?

In the meantime, let’s hope for the people who are stuck in limbo and praise those selfless enough to literally give away a part of themselves. Let’s root for the researchers who might, in the future, make the organ-transplant list a thing of the past. And lastly, let’s root for cotton candy.

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