Photographer Seamus Murphy visited a lab growing human body parts
The lab has successfully developed a small artery bypass graft and an artificial trachea
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012.
Alex Seifalian’s lab at University College London is helping humans who lose body parts to repair their bodies the way a newt would if it lost its tail – by growing another.
The researchers in his lab, which Seifalian calls “the human body parts store,” create the body parts with synthetic materials and a patient’s stem cells.
The lab builds a scaffold of the needed body part with a porous nanocomposite material, developed and patented by the team, and then puts it in a bioreactor with some of the patient’s bone marrow. The patient’s cells cover the scaffold and fill its many holes so that it essentially becomes the patient’s own.
After it is inserted into the patient, it’s absorbed by the body and replaced by new cells over time.
The team has successfully developed a small artery bypass graft and an artificial trachea, or windpipe, both first-evers that are now at work inside patients.
Seifalian’s lab, at UCL’s Department of Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine, took on a compassionate case of growing a nose for a 56-year-old man who had had his nose removed during cancer treatment. The man had a prosthetic plastic nose attached to glasses that he could wear, but he chose to not go out in public very often.
Earlier, after the nose had been forming in a glass jar for about four weeks, the lab-grown nose was implanted under the man’s arm. The patient’s doctor will move it to his face after it further develops under his skin. For the first year, the nostrils will remain sealed to avoid infection.
“You work in a lab all alone, don’t see the future of it,” Seifalian said. “What’s most exciting is that the things we make go to patients.”
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Murphy, who has spent more time in a war zone working as a conflict photographer than shooting scientific research, said taking portraits of the doctors and staff was akin to his work as a documentarian, but the still life aspect of the assignment posed an attractive challenge for him.
“It’s always challenging to take on something requiring solutions - that can be a dilemma with traveling, getting access to somebody important for the story, or in this case, finding ways to represent science,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail interview.
“Often in the course of working I will shoot a detail and try to make it say something compelling with its stillness so it’s not completely alien.”
He said the ear and nose looked eerily believable and even felt real.
“The nose freaked me out more than the ear– I think because of its dimensionality,” he wrote.
Murphy said he never felt queasy, just fascinated and in awe of the work being done in the lab.