A Scan of a Mechanical Heart Pump Fitted in a Live Human and Other Eerily Beautiful Scientific Images

From a photo of a tick biting flesh to a closeup of a kidney stone, the 18 winners of the 2014 Wellcome Image Awards highlight objects we don’t usually see

Kidney stone, SEM Credit: Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen
Lilium flower bud Credit: Spike Walker
Seal Credit: Anders Persson
Overall Winner: Mechanic heart pump in the thorax Credit: Anders Persson
Brown long-eared bat Credit: Chris Thorn, xrayartdesign.co.uk
Astrantia major 'Hadspen Blood' Credit: Dr. Henry Oakeley
Arabidopsis thaliana flower Credit: Stefan Eberhard
Deer tick embedded in skin of leg Credit: Ashley Prytherch, Royal Surrey County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
Nerve fibres in a healthy adult human brain, MRI Credit: Zeynep M. Saygin, McGovern Institute, MIT
Zebrafish embryo Credit: Annie Cavanagh
Medieval human mandible (lower jawbone) Credit: Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen
Head louse egg attached to a strand of hair, SEM Credit: Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen
Agricultural sludge sample Credit: Eberhardt Josué Friedrich Kernahan and Enrique Rodríguez Cañas
CIGS, semiconductor on thin film solar/photovoltaic cells Credit: Eberhardt Josué Friedrich Kernahan and Enrique Rodríguez Cañas
Breast cancer cells treated with nano sized drug carriers Credit: Khuloud T. Al-Jamal & Izzat Suffian
Human heart (aortic valve) tissue displaying calcification Credit: Sergio Bertazzo, Department of Materials, Imperial College London
Oxidised Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) crystals Credit: Spike Walker
Lagena species Credit: Spike Walker

Anders Persson is a pioneer in medical imaging. The radiologist and director of the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization at Sweden’s Linköping University was one of the first physicians to use three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans in full color in his own practice.

For more than two decades, Persson has experimented with new techniques for examining and diagnosing conditions at minimal risk to his patients. His ambition, as of late, is to conduct autopsies without even picking up a knife, using layers of images to determine a cause of death.

Persson recently saw a patient in need of a heart transplant, who, while waiting for a viable donor, was equipped with a mechanical heart pump. To get a good view of the person’s chest cavity, he took what’s called a dual-energy computed tomography (DECT) scan. The “dual” refers to the two x-ray swaths that pass over the body during the process. The scanner then compiled the images into a three-dimensional model, showing the ribcage and sutured breastbone in red and the pump in bright blue. The clarity of the resulting image is remarkable.

Fergus Walsh, a medical correspondent for the BBC, describes it best. “The juxtaposition of delicate human anatomy with the robust mechanical plumbing parts is dramatic,” he said, in a press release, “and the image is rendered so vividly in 3D that it appears to jump out at the viewer.” The Wellcome Trust, a foundation dedicated to human and animal health, recently named Persson’s image the overall winner of its 2014 Wellcome Image Awards.

Walsh and a panel of six other judges, all photo editors, science writers or trained scientists, also selected 17 other winners from about 1,000 new entries to Wellcome's image library since the previous contest. Wellcome Images is a collection, some 200,000 digital images strong, that strives to explore "the meaning of medicine, its history and current practice." The top images, picked on the basis of both artistic and technical merit, run the gamut of subjects, from a bulbous mass of blue- and magenta-stained breast cancer cells to a ghoulish four-day-old zebrafish embryo and an aggressive little tick piercing through human skin. Ouch!

“Never before have I thought of a kidney stone or a nit as beautiful, but the Wellcome Image Awards show time and again that there can always be a different way of looking at things,” said Walsh.

Kevin Mackenzie, manager of the microscopy facility at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, actually passed the stone. He felt compelled to see what the 2-millimeter clump of calcified minerals looked like under a scanning electron microscope.

This year marks the 13th annual Wellcome Image Awards, and it is the first time that the winning photographs, micrographs and scans will be on view for the public. The works are exhibited at the Glasgow Science Centre, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, Techniquest in Cardiff, the W5 in Belfast and in a window display at the Wellcome Trust in London. 

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