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Beating back cancer isn’t just about having the right drugs. It’s also about getting them to the exactly where tumors are hiding inside the body — all while minimizing damage to  healthy tissue.

In advanced ovarian cancer, that can mean pumping chemotherapy drugs into the abdominal cavity. The process is long and painful, and requires multiple sessions.

What if this could be both more efficient and more effective?


This is where engineering may be able to work in concert with medicine.

Katerina Mantzavinou, a Ph.D. student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology and a graduate research assistant at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is developing a new way to deliver those cancer-fighting drugs to the abdomen using origami, the ancient art of paper folding.


“I was very interested in deployable structures. How do you make something really big really small? How do you fold it up?” said Mantzavinou. “So what I did was, I bought all this origami paper.”

After perfecting a folding shape, she uses a 3-D printer to create a mold. She next injects that mold with silicone, a material compatible with human biology, producing a foldable drug-delivery device.

Mantzavinou is working to strike a balance between size and durability so a surgeon can pass the folded silicone shape through a small tube to the target. The origami structure would then unfold and deliver the drug evenly and effectively inside a patient’s abdomen.

“These cancers are metastatic, that’s not a good word in the context of cancer,” said Michael Cima, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mantzavinou’s adviser. “So the idea here was, is there a way we could do a minimally invasive procedure to deploy some sort of device that will deliver the drug over that entire course of the therapy?”

Their research is still in its early stages, and even if the chemo gets everywhere it should, it’s not clear if women with ovarian cancer will survive longer. (Metastatic cancers almost always develop resistance to chemo.) But Mantzavinou and Cima hope the technique will help make therapy for certain advanced cancers safer for patients and easier to administer for providers.

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