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If the best new innovations are often twists on older ideas, it shouldn't be surprising that one of the most inventive techniques being explored in the burgeoning field of tissue engineering is based on the ancient art of paper folding.
Backed by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Carol Livermore, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University, is trying to figure out how to apply novel folding patterns inspired by origami to fold 2D tissues into functioning 3D organs.
Previous attempts at full-scale organ engineering have yielded homogenous clumps of cells that somewhat resemble organs, but lack the complex and nuanced biochemical functioning afforded by their naturally occurring counterparts. Livermore and her team believe that their origami approach might change that. By making heterogeneous arrangements of cells on scaffolds of glass or polymer material, and then folding the complex 2D layouts as if they were paper, they believe it will be possible to make "biocompatible" synthetic organs.
This is what organ-gami might look like
“The thing that’s slick about this technique is that you take a horrific mixed up mess of different objects and they sort themselves into the proper locations on the surface,” Livermore said in a press release. She went on to compare it to the Miura fold, an origami technique that folds a flat piece of paper along a grid of creases into a smaller, and more 3-dimensional, structure.
Devising folding schemes that work like the Miura fold will require many trials of precise incising and subsequent refolding of actual organs. Basically, the researchers will need to know how to make naturally occurring 3D organs into 2D sheets before they can perform the opposite maneuver synthetically. To expedite the process, experts in both origami and tissue engineering will be offering guidance on the project. Nationally renowned origami experts Roger Alperin and Robert Lang, together with experienced MIT tissue engineers Sangeeta Bhatia and Martin Culpepper, are among those set to contribute.
The idea is to eventually be able to coordinate the positioning of the cells so thoroughly that inherent biochemical processes basically finish the job, self-assembling into organs that work as well as the originals. Which of course would put an entirely new spin on tissue paper.