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Engineers use origami to make surgical tools smaller

The goal, according to scientists, is to make tools so small that surgical incisions can heal on their own without sutures.

By Stephen Feller
Engineers use origami to make surgical tools smaller
Brigham Young University student Jason Dearden works with origami-inspired forceps that are significantly smaller than standard ones used with the da Vinci Surgical Robot. Photo by Mark Philbrick/Brigham Young University

PROVO, Utah, March 7 (UPI) -- As small as robotic surgical tools already are, scientists at Brigham Young University are combining origami and carefully designed 3D-printed prototypes to scale tools down even more.

The goal of shrinking surgical tools as much as possible is to allow for incisions to be so small they heal by themselves, rather than requiring sutures to close.

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Origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, has inspired designs for some of the tools, which the scientists compare to some of the cues NASA has taken from the art form when designing satellites and spacecraft.

Scientists at BYU are working with Intuitive Surgical, the company that manufactures the da Vinci Surgical System, a surgeon-operated robot with long, thin arms that enter patients through incisions for a variety of procedures. Making tools for the ends of the arms smaller will allow for better, more precise surgical performance, the scientists said.

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"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," Spencer Magleby, a researchers at BYU, said in a press release. "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."

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In a study published in the journal Mechanical Sciences, the scientists describe the combination of origami folding techniques and 3D-printing prototype parts to test with the machine.

Among the instruments included in the study is a forceps small enough to pass through a hole about three millimeters wide, while the D-Core starts flat so it can be inserted through an incision and once inside the body can expand into two rounded surfaces that roll on each other.

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The scientists said using origami techniques to make tools smaller, and then testing 3D-printed versions of parts, allowed for a range of motion they said gave "a great deal of flexibility in design."

"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."

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