If the best new innovations are often twists on older ideas, it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the most inventive techniques being explored in the burgeoning field of tissue engineering is based on the ancient art of paper folding.

Backed by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Carol Livermore, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University, is trying to figure out how to apply novel folding patterns inspired by origami to fold 2D tissues into functioning 3D organs.

Previous attempts at full-scale organ engineering have yielded homogenous clumps of cells that somewhat resemble organs, but lack the complex and nuanced biochemical functioning afforded by their naturally occurring counterparts. Livermore and her team believe that their origami approach might change that. By making heterogeneous arrangements of cells on scaffolds of glass or polymer material, and then folding the complex 2D layouts as if they were paper, they believe it will be possible to make “biocompatible” synthetic organs.