Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, has been around for more than a mil­len­nium, but asso­ciate pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering Carol Liv­er­more is now using it to create solu­tions in an emerging mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary field in med­i­cine: tissue engineering.

There are lots of rea­sons to wish that we could make human spare parts,” said Liv­er­more, whose new research is backed by a $2 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foundation’s Emerging Fron­tiers in Research and Inno­va­tion pro­gram and the Air Force Office of Sci­en­tific Research.

The problem with most tissue engi­neering approaches, how­ever, is that there is a trade off between time and con­trol. That is, simply mixing up a tissue’s cel­lular ingre­di­ents won’t yield a func­tioning tissue.

Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Photo by Brooks Canaday.

In pre­vious work, Liv­er­more and her team devel­oped a novel tech­nique that allows for the con­trolled self-​​assembly of small objects  such as spheres or human cells into spe­cific loca­tions on two-​​dimensional sur­faces, ranging from glass to dif­ferent types of polymers.

The thing that’s slick about this tech­nique,” said Liv­er­more, “is that you take a hor­rific mixed up mess of dif­ferent objects and they sort them­selves into the proper loca­tions on the surface.”

By assem­bling dif­ferent cell types—like those that make up blood ves­sels, for example, or liver tissue—onto a bio­com­pat­ible scaf­fold, Liv­er­more lit­er­ally lays the foun­da­tion for a three-​​dimensional struc­ture, such as an organ or large piece of tissue. The two-​​dimensional scaf­fold pro­vides the “paper.” All she needs to do is fold it up.

There are origami folds designed so if you hold onto a couple cor­ners of the paper with the creases already in the right place, the whole thing folds itself up into a block,” she said, pointing to the so-​​called “Miura fold” as an example. With every­thing laid out in the right place on her two-​​dimensional cel­lular “paper,” these folds allow her to build a three dimen­sional block of tissue with blood ves­sels and other struc­tures run­ning through it.

Image via Wiki­media Commons.

Liv­er­more will be working with a diverse group of researchers and origami experts. Robert Lang, the country’s most renowned origami artist, and Roger Alperin, a math­emeti­cian and origami the­o­rist, will help iden­tify the best folding mech­a­nisms for the job. Sangeeta Bhatia and Martin Culpepper, both of the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology, will add their exper­tise in tissue engi­neering and pre­ci­sion mechanics, respectively.

North­eastern grad­uate stu­dent Majid Bigdeli Karimi will figure out how to lay out cells on the two-​​dimensional sur­face so that they will prop­erly align them­selves once folded. The big ques­tion here, said Liv­er­more, is “how do you take an actual three-​​dimensional liver struc­ture and best turn it into two dimensions?”

While we still can’t expect a mix of cells to auto­mat­i­cally form into func­tioning tissue, Livermore’s approach may allow her to use that mix to create a two-​​dimensional base that, once art­fully folded, will do just that.