MAR 09, 2016 07:15 AM PST

‘Origami Tools' to Make Surgery Less Invasive and More Precise

Spencer Magleby and the tiny origami-inspired surgical devices

In the world of medical surgeries, smaller incisions could often mean less infection risk and faster recovery time. To help surgeons reach this goal, engineers from Brigham Young University have turned to origami – the Japanese art of paper folding – for inspiration. Their innovative, origami-inspired tools boast sizes so small that stitches may not even be necessary in future surgeries.

Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby, professors of mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University (BYU), are leading the group that’s designing these origami-inspired surgical tools. "The whole concept is to make smaller and smaller incisions," said Larry Howell. "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."

By reducing the size of the cuts into patients, surgical procedures can be less invasive. This not only reduces the stress for the patients, but could also promise better treatment outcomes, as the risk of infection is significantly reduced with smaller cuts. Additionally, in delicate surgeries involving tiny networks of tissues like the brain, smaller instruments could give doctors greater precision – a luxury that’s not always afforded with current operating tools.

And for researchers at BYU, turning to a new origami-based design system was absolutely necessary, as the current industry designs have already reached their size limits and can’t go any smaller. Origami, however, provides the perfect inspiration for new designs. By relying on the folding actions and deflection inherent in origami structures, the team can create movable tools without the need for pin joints and other complex parts. For these origami-based tools, simplicity is prized over complexity, as they can be streamlined to be more efficient while requiring one-third to one-fourth less parts than traditional tools.

"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 said. "The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler."

Using these concepts, the team have already engineered a set of robotically-controlled forceps that can pass through a tiny 3-millimeter incision. These and future tools developed by the team will be licensed to Intuitive Surgical, the company that makes the da Vinci surgical robot famous for helping surgeons carry out small, minimally-invasive operations.

In describing his origami-inspired designs, Spencer Magleby said that origami is useful in medicine in much the same way that it’s useful in space. "Those who design spacecraft want their products to be small and compact because space is at a premium on a spacecraft, but once you get in space, they want those same products to be large, such as solar arrays or antennas," Magleby said. "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."

Origami inspiration has also penetrated other fields of medicine. Notably in nanotechnology, researchers have applied the technique to create DNA origami as effective drug delivery vehicles. 


About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
You May Also Like
JUN 30, 2018
JUN 30, 2018
CD4 T Cells Responsible for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
A specific subset of immune cells could be targeted to better treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A new University of Alabama at Birmingham study point...
JUL 02, 2018
JUL 02, 2018
AF Treatment Zaps Faulty Heart Tissue
Treating atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common type of arrhythmia, with what was previously a last-resort therapeutic approach will help reduce the ris...
AUG 26, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
AUG 26, 2018
Why the Same Genetic Mutation can Affect People Differently
Scientists have been confounded for years by genetic errors with the sequence, but a different effect on people....
AUG 30, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
AUG 30, 2018
Genetic Changes can Help Diagnose Childhood Cancers Far Earlier
New research has revealed genetic rearrangements that happen far before bone cancer starts growing in children....
SEP 03, 2018
Clinical & Molecular DX
SEP 03, 2018
Patients fewer symptoms after these words from doctors
A few encouraging words about recovery time from a health care provider after an allergic reaction significantly reduces symptoms, according to a new study...
DEC 10, 2018
Health & Medicine
DEC 10, 2018
What To Expect During Your Stress Test
If you or a loved one has been scheduled for a treadmill stress test, you may be wondering what you can expect. The procedure is usually done in a hospital...
Loading Comments...