Researchers look to origami for tissue engineering

Asst. Prof. Gulden Camci-Unal and graduate students Darlin Lantigua and Sanika Suvarnapathaki Image by Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun
"The overarching goal of our lab research is to improve human health the quality of life and give back to society," said Gulden Camci-Unal, left, professor of chemical engineering at UMass Lowell. She s joined by graduate students Darlin Lantigua of Lawrence and Sanika Suvarnapathaki of Lowell.

Lowell Sun
By Kori Tuitt

LOWELL -- When you think of paper, maybe taking notes comes to mind. Or crafting your best paper plane. Or maybe even nuzzling up to your favorite book.

But what about tissue regeneration?

That's what a research team at UMass Lowell is doing. Origami has become the inspiration for the future of tissue engineering in one UML laboratory.

"As a kid I loved making origami structures and later on I learned origami is not only a fascinating art, but also it can be used for scientific applications," said Gulden Camci-Unal, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the university.

"Paper is an extremely flexible material," she continued.

"It can be easily cut, folded, creased and manipulated to fabricate our scaffolds, which are essentially three-dimensional template structures that can potentially be used as implants."

Disease degeneration, trauma and aging are some of the culprits of tissue loss in the body. With the lack of tissue and organ donors, researchers have been looking for ways to create artificial tissue replacements. The team has tested everything from copy paper to napkin tissues to use as a base for establishing scaffolds that cells can be tested and grown on. They have already grown bone cells on origami-folded paper.

"The overarching goal of our lab research is to improve human health the quality of life and give back to society," Camci-Unal said.

"In order to do that, we're focusing on developing biomaterials that can be used as artificial tissues."

The ultimate goal is to some day be able to fabricate off-the-shelf tissue products.

Darlin Lantigua, a graduate student studying biomedical engineering and biotechnology, has been using paper for his project, which is in part focused on the development of medical devices. He said similar to how a pregnancy test works, a device could take a biological sample from a patient and test for whether a particular disease is present.

"For me it's an amazing experience because my main goal is to be able to help other people and give back to society," said Lantigua, of Lawrence. "I come to the lab every day and enjoy my work. It doesn't feel like I'm working."

Sanika Suvarnapathaki, a Ph.D. student from Lowell, is also studying biomedical engineering and biotechnology. She has been using a flexible material called hydrogels for her research focused on heart tissue.

"We study a lot of different biomaterials. We work with hydrogels, paper and other polymers," Suvarnapathaki said. "It's been really exciting for me to explore all these different biomaterials and have sort of a holistic view of what's out there in terms of biomaterials that can be used eventually to fabricate off-the-shelf tissue."

Camci-Unal said working with the research team for the past two years has been an incredible experience, especially because of how interdisciplinary the work is. She has been working with students with backgrounds in life sciences, engineering and medicine. There are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students on the team as well.

"They complement each other, they learn from each other," she said. "They can look at issues from different perspectives based on their backgrounds and they come up with really innovative solutions to problems."