Cells are the building blocks of tissue and tissues are the basic unit of function in the body. A group of these tissues and cells make up organs that carry out body functions responsible for the body to work. Medical advances and developments have made it possible to create biological substitutes capable of replacing diseased or damaged tissue in humans.
The field of tissue engineering involves the combination of engineering and life sciences tools to develop bio-artificial substitutes for organs and tissues and assemble functional constructs that restore, maintain, or improve damaged tissues or whole organs. “There are lots of reasons to wish that we could make human spare parts,” said Carol Livermore at Northeastern University whose new research is backed by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program. Her research draws inspiration from Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding that has been around for more than a millennium, as a theory in her attempt to create substitute tissue structures.
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. 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.
“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”, she notes. There are always risks of tissue failure or the immune rejection of the body to a foreign cell. While we 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.