A Disaster in the Kitchen Leads to a Breakthrough in the Lab

After a failed attempt at making cotton candy, biomedical engineer Chris Moraes thought to use sugar to mold silicone and study human cells

A sugar mold with the University of Michigan logo (University of Michigan)
smithsonian.com

Many brilliant ideas in science and technology have come outside the lab. Some inspirations come from nature: Percy Shaw invented the now-ubiquitous road reflector after spotting the glowing eyes of a cat while driving in the fog. George de Mestral saw the burrs sticking to his dog’s fur after a hunting trip and created Velcro.

But it’s likely that few innovations have been inspired by cotton candy making accidents.

University of Michigan postdoctoral researcher Chris Moraes studies scar tissue formation using extremely soft silicone forms. The forms are shaped using molds. But the silicone is so soft—as soft or softer than wet tile caulk—it’s hard to remove the forms from the molds without them breaking apart.

“It’s kind of like baking a cake,” explains biomedical engineering professor Shu Takayama, who leads Moraes' team. “We pour it in the pan and then we bake it, and once it’s done we take it out. The challenge is taking it out of the pan without the cake falling apart.”

The team tinkered with different ways of unmolding the forms. But nothing worked very well. Then, one day, Moraes, an enthusiastic cook, was making cotton candy at home.

"The cotton candy was a total failure," he told University of Michigan News. "I ended up with nothing but a huge blob of sugar syrup. I gave up and left it to cool in the pan."

But when he went to remove the cooled sugar from the pan, he noticed that it was perfectly molded to the pan’s shape. It dawned on him that maybe he could use hardened sugar as a mold for his lab’s silicone forms. He tried it, using a simple recipe of sugar, water and corn syrup, and met with instant success. The soft silicone is poured into a mold of hardened sugar. Later, the whole thing is placed in a water bath. The sugar dissolves away, leaving a perfect silicone form.

“Instead of trying to take 'the cake' out, we just dissolved away the cake pan,” Takayama says.

As a bonus, the new way of creating molds makes the lab smell delicious. The process was detailed in an issue of the journal Lab on a Chip

The improved mold-making process will help Takayama and his team further their research on scar formation. The researchers use the silicone forms to mimic soft human tissue. These faux tissues are used to culture and study cells.

“The environment in a typical cell culture dish is very different than the environment inside the body,” Takayama explains. “One of those differences is that a lot of the tissue in the body is soft, but cell culture dishes are hard plastic or glass surfaces, so cells will behave differently.”

Takayama and his team are studying how cells move and pull, which can happen during scar formation. Sometimes scarring occurs after an injury, and other times it occurs internally as a result of a disease process. The latter is known as “fibrosis,” and can happen in almost any organ. Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition where the lungs fill with scar tissue, making breathing increasingly difficult. It can be caused by autoimmune diseases, exposure to certain chemicals, radiation damage or infections. Sometimes it happens for no apparent reason. Cirrhosis is fibrosis of the liver, often caused by diseases like hepatitis or by alcohol abuse. Renal fibrosis is the result of many late-stage kidney diseases.

By studying how cells move on the silicone forms, the researchers hope to better understand how to predict and prevent scarring that causes disfigurement and disability. That would be a sweet result indeed.

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