Medical Research Revealed
Crossing the boundaries between art and science
We are collaborating with Oxford scientist-turned-artist Dr Lizzie Burns on a variety of projects to enrich our Department to celebrate our historical and contemporary research. Enrichment includes the long-term display of paintings from ‘Medical Research Revealed’ funded by the Medical Research Council (2002-4). Lizzie created a series of paintings inspired by the scientific work that it funds. The collection of oil paintings looks beyond the practicalities of biomedical research to reveal the secret beauty of the scientific entities yielding answers to many of the world’s major health problems.
The creative process for each artwork started with Dr Burns collaborating with scientists to deepen her understanding of their particular area of research. Her challenge was then to communicate this complex subject matter through the visual medium, making it relevant and accessible to a range of audiences. The project has been exhibited in the UK and India at the invitation of the British Council and now has a long-term home in our Department as well as Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, and the Dunn School of Pathology. Lizzie continues to use images of these paintings to engage young people and encourage them to great creative too.
This painting depicts a tiny phosphate molecule essential for life including the storage of energy as ATP. Phosphate is used in communicating messages. For example, as insulin binds, proteins are triggered to add or remove phosphates from other proteins, setting up a complex series of reactions which results in sugar being taken up from the bloodstream. It seems remarkable that such a small molecule is responsible for passing on such important messages and I felt it deserved a painting in its own right. I have painted an impression as to how a phosphate molecule might appear, with its central phosphorus atom surrounded by four oxygen atoms and a single hydrogen atom. Brushstrokes are used to indicate moving clouds of electrons orbiting each nuclei.
Cholesterol, sugar, salt
Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease and adult-onset diabetes (type II), both of which place an enormous strain on the health service. This painting depicts the molecules we find delicious: fat, sugar and salt (left to right). These molecules are perfectly healthy as part of a balanced diet but in excess lead to obesity.
This painting imagines looking at the detail of a cell membrane. Here statins are being used to help prevent a build up of cholesterol in the coronary artery which could lead to a heart attack. Statins help prevent a liver cell (dark green) from producing as much cholesterol as usual. As a result, the liver cell takes up lots of cholesterol (white beads) from the blood where it will be excreted from the body.
Differences between cells allows investigation of fundamental questions such as what goes wrong in a cancer cell. In this painting a cancer cell (shown in red) is being compared to a normal non-cancerous cell (shown in green). Where cells overlap a yellow colour indicates an equal amount of genetic messages whereas dots of red or green indicate genes which have gone awry in cancer cells. In reality, the results of this experiment using DNA chips are thousands of yellow, green and red dots.
Discovering how cells repair themselves after damage can help scientists understand what goes awry in common diseases. For example, this painting shows a cell undergoing apoptosis (black) after being damaged by ultra-violet light (seen as a purple shadow at the top of painting). Damaged cells which fail to apoptose are on the start of a dangerous pathway to becoming cancerous.
This painting shows the progression of a normal colon towards the cancerous state with abnormally growing cells (pink) being shed into a stool sample from where they can be detected.
We sense and think using specialised cells called neurons. Neurons are found across our body and meet in the spinal cord to relay messages to our brain. Messages take the form of electrical signals which are propagated and transmitted between nerve cells. This painting shows transmission of an electrical message. In order to transmit a signal neurons have to first set up a chemical gradient. Small positively charged sodium ions (Na+ represented by orange) are pumped out of the cells in exchange for potassium ions (K+ shown in violet). Electrical messages passing down the neuron are seen as orange streaks of sodium entering the neuron. The speed of nerve impulses is dramatically increased with white oily layers called myelin sheath which can be seen in the painting. The debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis are caused by the immune system inappropriately attacking the myelin sheath.
The benefits of public health and medicine contribute towards an ageing population in the UK. Dementia is a tragic disease and a leading cause of death. In this painting, grey indicates loss of brain tissue which is responsible for decline of memory and other higher mental functions in a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Research brings hope for new treatments and perhaps one day the ability to prevent the onset of this terrible disease. For example, finding that a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) declines in Alzheimer’s disease led to cholinergic therapy for controlling the symptoms.
Dr Lizzie Burns
Lizzie has always combined a deep and active interest in both science and art. She was a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford before becoming a full-time science-based artist and communicator in 2002. Since then Lizzie has continued creating her artwork including drawings for Professor Ray Guillery’s book ‘The Brain as a Tool’ and outreach projects. This includes contributing to ‘C-slide’ based on a collection of teaching microscope slides from Nobel Prize winning Sir Charles Scott Sherrington whose poetic writing includes describing the brain as ‘an enchanted loom’. Lizzie was awarded an OxTALENT prize for inspiring students about Sherrington.
Here are her thoughts on what inspired her to create Medical Research Revealed: “My idea for this unique project came from the Medical Research Council’s mission ‘to promote public engagement with medical research’. As a child I was fascinated by small creatures and painting pictures and these interests have remained an essential part of my life. During my academic career I have combined them by producing paintings based on cellular and molecular biology. Working on a large-scale, in-depth project like Medical Research Revealed has enabled me to develop my art further. It has been a very rewarding experience to apply scientific knowledge to art to reveal the beauty and complexity of life to a wider audience.”