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.