Into the fold: Origami concepts being used in healthcare


Some employers are giving out origami tests to potential employees to gauge certain skillsets.

Paper craft has its roots in many ancient civilisations but in modern times it has become increasingly associated with the Japanese as they have embraced it in many facets of their life.

In fact, two of the most popular forms of Japanese paper craft are origami and kirigami.

Both involve folding a flat sheet of paper into a structure but origami, unlike kirigami, does not involve cuts, glue or markings on the paper.

For the purpose of brevity, these two forms of craft will be collectively known as origami in this article.

The act of folding occurred long before modern day paper was invented, perhaps way back to the traceable past when our ancestors started to use leaf as a drinking tool by folding it into a simple cone-shaped structure.

The science and art of folding started when modern day paper was invented in China around 200 BC during the Han Dynasty.

Today, with the advancement in paper folding science, mathematical/technical origami has enabled the development of technologies never before thought possible.

State of the art architectures with intriguing aesthetics have sprouted throughout the world in the past five decades inspired by this ancient paper folding art form.

The most powerful space telescope ever launched by mankind, the James Webb Space Telescope is dubbed the Origami Telescope due to its foldable primary mirrors and solar sail.

The James Webb Space Telescope is dubbed the origami telescope due to its foldable properties. — AFPThe James Webb Space Telescope is dubbed the origami telescope due to its foldable properties. — AFP

Face masks and more

In recent years, technical origami has found its way into the medical field due to its deployable and reconfigurable properties.

The most prominent example of this is probably the emergence of origami face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The origami tessellation structure used to design the mask’s surface is a brilliant idea as it increases the total surface area, hence improving its breathability.

Back in the 1970s before the deployable origami surgical stent graft was invented, undergoing a coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty carried a substantial risk of complications.

With the advancement of material science and stent graft design, angioplasty nowadays has become a relatively safe procedure.

Technical origami has also accelerated the development of biomedical science and genetic engineering fields, especially in protein sequencing for vaccine creation and scaffolded DNA origami storage structure for localised drug delivery systems.

To understand how origami plays a role in protein sequencing, we need to know that proteins, made up of chains of amino acids which are the essential building blocks of life, can only function if they are folded properly in a series of specific codes (triplet nucleotide sequences known as codons) in the form of amino acids.

These “codes” namely A, T (DNA) or U (RNA), G, and C will determine the type of amino acids formed and hence, determine the folding in the secondary, tertiary or quaternary structures of functional proteins.

The protein foldings are extremely important as they will determine the functionality of the proteins in order for them to perform in the complex biological processes or mechanisms in the human body.

Origami has inspired many art installations and architecture. — Photos: FilepicOrigami has inspired many art installations and architecture. — Photos: Filepic

How the structure works

Improperly folded amino acid groups produce non-functional proteins that could hinder normal body function.

These non-functioning protein groups are known as proteinopathies, which in turn could cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

By carefully studying the folding patterns of proteinopathies (similar to crease patterns in origami) and the folded structures, therapeutics could be developed for these diseases.

Similarly, by examining the weak spots of a virus, scientists are trying to develop folded protein structures that are complementary of the virus, so that, when bonded with the virus, the origami protein could disable the virus’s invading cells and lock the virus in its inactive stage.

With that, the virus could then be hijacked instead of harming the normal cells and inflicting further damage in the body.

To understand the working principle of how a scaffolded DNA origami storage structure works, think about the folding of the specific codes of DNA structure to represent the box and another specific codes to represent the lid of the box.

One strand of DNA holds the lid shut while a separate DNA “key” will spring it open.

With this box-lid structure, drugs could be stored and then later, released when triggered.

So, it’s crucial to have some basic knowledge about origami science to apply them in the medical field and drug discovery research.

Tiny marvel

Origami technology has also been adopted to fabricate ingestible origami robots by a team of researchers in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), United States.

The challenge to fabricate minimally invasive ingestible robots is to select the appropriate material and folding pattern.

It has to be folded small enough to fit into a capsule and when unfolded, it needs to be rigid enough to carry out its function.

The tiny origami robot made from dried pig intestines is about the size of a capsule and has a magnet embedded in it.

Once the origami ingestible robot is swallowed, it can be unfolded to remove foreign objects.

It could also be used to patch wounds in a minimally invasive procedure.

Moving further down the microscopic scale, researchers from Brigham Young University, US, have developed nano injection mechanisms utilising origami-like compliant mechanism that could inject DNA materials into cells for transgenic research and gene therapy.

Current micro injection needles are too big to be injected into the cell without damaging it.

By incorporating a foldable lance, the microelectromechanical system is 10 times smaller than the current micro injection needle.

This effectively enables the transportation of DNA materials into a cell without damaging it.It may look simple but there is an art and science to paper folding.It may look simple but there is an art and science to paper folding.

Unique testing methods

The importance of employing paper-folding activities as a tool to enhance an individual’s spatial reasoning and psychomotor skills are also highly emphasised.

Believe it or not, origami has also been adopted by certain corporations to screen for potential candidates and to enhance their skills.

For instance, the Japanese space agency JAXA used the folding of 1,000 paper cranes as one of the tests for candidates of its astronaut programme.

Some developed nations have also incorporated origami science into their mathematics and geometry curriculum for primary and secondary schools.

To enable students to understand and appreciate the delicate relationship between the forms and functions of living organisms, some universities are also slowly blending in the science behind origami in order to conduct their tutorials and practical sessions, particularly those involving biology lessons related to DNA structures and proteins.

Even renowned universities like MIT and Harvard offer specialised courses in folding science.

A Japanese hospital which offers one of the best surgical internship programmes even devised an innovative examination process that involves miniature origami instead of testing the interns on their surgery skills on real patients.

These origami tests may seem strange for any medical institutions, but origami science was incorporated for a reason – all of them require an incredible amount of concentration, coordination, the ability to work under pressure and a pair of steady hands.

These are undoubtedly some of the invaluable qualities for any successful surgeon.

With the current advancements in medical science and manufacturing or material technology, we are indeed witnessing an array of innovative products being invented or inspired by incorporating origami techniques and concepts.

In the last decade, the powerful discovery into the folding science has linked not only medical science per se, but also string theory and quantum physics to the fundamentals of folding.

As we are heading into industry 5.0 and beyond, many more origami enabled technologies will emerge and change future landscapes, particularly in the field of biomedical health science.

Dr Lee Tze Yan is a lecturer and researcher in the field of molecular medicine at the Perdana University School of Liberal Arts, Science and Technology, while Kenneth Ch’ng is the founder of Malaysia Origami Association, Malaysia Origami Academy and the pioneer of Malaysia Origami Movement. This article is courtesy of Perdana University. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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