updated 2/11/2009 2:03:38 PM ET 2009-02-11T19:03:38

Cotton candy has delighted children for a century. Now it may have found a new role: helping scientists grow replacement tissues for people.

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The flossy stuff may be just right for creating networks of blood vessels within laboratory-grown bone, skin, muscle or fat for breast reconstruction, researchers suggest.

Dr. Jason Spector of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York and Leon Bellan of Cornell University present their preliminary research in a paper published online this week by the journal Soft Matter.

Here’s how their technique would work:

First, you pour a thick liquid chemical over a wad of cotton candy. Let the liquid solidify into a chunk, and put that in warm water to dissolve the candy. That leaves tiny channels where the strands of candy used to be. So you have a chunk of material with a network of fine channels within.

Next, line these channels with cells to create artificial blood vessels. And seed the solid chunk with immature cells of whatever tissue you’re trying to make. The block is biodegradable, and as it disappears, it will gradually be replaced by growing tissue. In the end, you get a piece of tissue permeated with tiny blood vessels.

So far, the researchers have made these blocks of material and run rat blood through the channels within. While they may eventually switch to something other than cotton candy as the research proceeds, Bellan said he hopes to stick with the inexpensive stuff as long as possible.

Spector, who keeps a jar of jelly beans on his desk, said he enjoys cotton candy and that with this project, “it’s taken on a whole new meaning.”

But don’t offer any of the stuff to his research partner.

“I actually hate cotton candy,” Bellan said. “It’s disgusting. I won’t eat it.”

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