The ancient Japanese art of origami is useful for making more than just pretty papercranes and owls. In the future, the prac­tice may be used to pro­duce new human organs–an alter­na­tive to the 3-​​D printed organs that sci­en­tists are working on today.

Carol Liv­er­more, a pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has long studied micro­fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques, like the MEMS sys­tems used to make com­puter chips. But fab­ri­cating human organs has proved to be par­tic­u­larly challenging.

Part of my research has included assem­bling indi­vidual objects that move inde­pen­dently, like cells, into posi­tions on 2-​​D sur­faces,” Liv­er­more explains. Get­ting those cells from a flat sur­face into a 3-​​D sur­face isn’t easy, how­ever. “Some­times the best ideas come out of moments of pro­found frus­tra­tion,” she laughs. “How do you turn a 2-​​D struc­ture into a 3-​​D struc­ture? The first thing I thought was a cin­namon roll–you roll it up, you can fold it.”

So Liv­er­more, along with a group of sci­en­tists and artists (Robert Lang, a promi­nent origami artist; Roger Alperin, an origami math­e­mati­cian; Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT pro­fessor who spe­cial­izes in tissue engi­neering; and Martin Culpepper, a pre­ci­sion mechanics pro­fessor at MIT), set out on a mis­sion to figure out how to turn a cluster of 2-​​D cells into a func­tional liver. The research is in the very early stages–Livermore and her team aren’t yet working with real cells–but there are already hurdles.

One issue: Bio­log­ical work has to be done in a clean envi­ron­ment, but when you make origami, you fold paper on a table and press down creases with your fin­gers. “We can’t do that to make tis­sues because we need it to stay appro­pri­ately clean so we don’t con­t­a­m­i­nate it,” says Liv­er­more. “We will wind up touching it at some level, but we want to min­i­mize touch, and there are things that could happen via sterile probes held by humans or machines.”

Read the article at Fast Company →