The ancient Japanese art of origami is useful for making more than just pretty papercranes and owls. In the future, the practice may be used to produce new human organs–an alternative to the 3-D printed organs that scientists are working on today.

Carol Livermore, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University, has long studied microfabrication techniques, like the MEMS systems used to make computer chips. But fabricating human organs has proved to be particularly challenging.

“Part of my research has included assembling individual objects that move independently, like cells, into positions on 2-D surfaces,” Livermore explains. Getting those cells from a flat surface into a 3-D surface isn’t easy, however. “Sometimes the best ideas come out of moments of profound frustration,” she laughs. “How do you turn a 2-D structure into a 3-D structure? The first thing I thought was a cinnamon roll–you roll it up, you can fold it.”

So Livermore, along with a group of scientists and artists (Robert Lang, a prominent origami artist; Roger Alperin, an origami mathematician; Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT professor who specializes in tissue engineering; and Martin Culpepper, a precision mechanics professor at MIT), set out on a mission to figure out how to turn a cluster of 2-D cells into a functional liver. The research is in the very early stages–Livermore and her team aren’t yet working with real cells–but there are already hurdles.

One issue: Biological work has to be done in a clean environment, but when you make origami, you fold paper on a table and press down creases with your fingers. “We can’t do that to make tissues because we need it to stay appropriately clean so we don’t contaminate it,” says Livermore. “We will wind up touching it at some level, but we want to minimize touch, and there are things that could happen via sterile probes held by humans or machines.”