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Origami Is Inspiring Minimally Invasive Surgical Advances

The traditional Japanese paper-folding art form has helped drive breakthroughs in everything from battery technology to foldable solar panels used in space. Now, it could be driving advances in robotic surgery.

Brian Buntz
Tiny forceps

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU; Provo, UT) have been working with NASA to use origami principles in spacecraft design. "Those who design spacecraft want their products to be small and compact because space is at a premium on a spaceship, but once you get in space, they want those same products to be large, such as solar arrays or antennas," says professor Spencer Magleby. "There's a similar idea here: We'd like something to get quite small to go through the incision, but once it's inside, we'd like it to get much larger."

The BYU researchers are working on using related origami techniques to fashion surgical tools that are so small they can be inserted into holes in the skin that can heal without sutures.

The university has licensed the technology to robotic surgery pioneer Intuitive Surgical.

Magleby, working with fellow BYU mechanical engineering professors Larry Howell and Brian Jensen, are working towards making surgery ever less invasive. "To that end, we're creating devices that can be inserted into a tiny incision and then deployed inside the body to carry out a specific surgical function," Howell said in a statement.

The surgical device industry had reached a point in which was becoming impossible to make surgical tools smaller using traditional instrumentation. But the BYU engineers were able to eliminate pin joints from some surgical instruments, using an origami-inspired design instead.  

"These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed--hopefully, one day manipulating things as small as nerves," Magleby notes in a release. "The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler."

One example of a device created by the researchers is robotically-controlled forceps that can fit inside a 3-mm hole.

The researchers are also working on a device known as D-Core, which is initially in a 2-D configuration but expands to become two rounded surfaces that can roll to simulate the interaction of spinal discs. The device can be made from a single material. The researchers have created versions from Tyvek, polycarbonate, polypropylene, and metallic glass.

The research is published in Mechanism and Machine Theory.

Image above from BYU.

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at BIOMEDevice Boston, April 13-14, 2016.

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