Contest Winners Capture the Eerie Beauty of Medical Imagery

From stained mice placenta to an implant in the eye, this year’s Wellcome Image Award recipients highlight the beauty of science

Neural stem cells have the ability to form all the different cell types found in the nervous system. Here, researchers are investigating how neural stem cells grow on a synthetic gel called PEG. After just two weeks, the stem cells (magenta) produced nerve fibers (green). These fibers grew away from the cell due to chemical gradients in the gel, teaching researchers about how their environment affects their structural organization. Collin Edington and Iris Lee, © Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This is a visualization of data extracted from tweets containing the hashtag #breastcancer. Twitter users are represented by dots and the lines between show the relationships between the Twitter users. Each dot size is based on the number and importance of other users they are connected with, and the thickness of each connecting line is based on the number of times that a particular relationship showed up. The ‘double yolk’ structure at the top of the image indicates common mentions of two accounts—one tweet that was retweeted thousands of times. Eric Clarke, Richard Arnett and Jane Burns, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
Our spines allow us to stand and move, and they protect the spinal cord, which connects all the nerves in our body with our brain. The spinal cord is formed from a structure called the neural tube, which develops during the first month of pregnancy. This series of three images shows the open end of a mouse’s neural tube, with each image highlighting (in blue) one of the three main embryonic tissue types. On the left is the neural tube itself, which develops into the brain, spine and nerves. On the right is the surface ectoderm, which will eventually form the skin, teeth and hair. The middle image shows the mesoderm, which will form the organs. Gabriel Galea, University College London
Native to the Pacific Ocean, Hawaiian bobtail squid are nocturnal predators that remain buried under the sand during the day and come out to hunt at night. The squid have a light organ on their underside that houses a colony of glowing bacteria, Vibrio fischeri. It can, however, control the amount of light that is released using its ink sac, matching emitted light to the moonlight and stars, rendering it invisible to predators swimming below. Mark R Smith, Macroscopic Solutions
This image shows how an iris clip, also known as an intraocular lens, is fitted onto the eye. The clip is a small, thin lens made from silicone or acrylic with plastic side supports to hold it in place. It is fixed to the iris through a tiny surgical incision and can treat cataracts and near-sightedness. Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
This image shows a section of cat skin, including hairs, whiskers and their blood supply. This sample is from a Victorian microscope slide. Blood vessels were injected with a red dye called carmine dye (here appearing black) in order to visualize the capillaries in the tissue—a newly developed technique at the time. This image is a composite made up of 44 individual images stitched together. David Linstead
This vibrant image shows the white matter pathway that connects the two different brain regions responsible for speech and language. The brain is composed of two types of matter. Grey matter contains cells, and is responsible for processing information. White matter connects these areas of grey matter, allowing information to be transferred between distant areas of the brain. Stephanie J Forkel and Ahmad Beyh, Natbrainlab, King’s College London; Alfonso de Lara Rubio, King’s College London
Animals possess unique variations in their anatomy that help them adapt to temperature changes in their environment. This image uses a new contrast agent that allows researchers to see the entire network of blood vesses in an animal—right down to the capillaries. The extensive blood supply just beneath the skin of a pigeon shown in this image helps the creature control its body temperature. Scott Echols, Scarlet Imaging and the Grey Parrot Anatomy Project
This rainbow was created during a study of how a mouse mother's immune system can affect a developing baby's placenta. Each placenta was treated with three different stains: blue shows the nucleus, red show the blood vessels, and green shows the trophoblasts (the first cells to form in the developing embryo). The range of colors show the significant effects that differences in a mother's immune system can have on development. Suchita Nadkarni, William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London
In order for plants and animals to grow and remain healthy, cells need to have the ability to replicate. When a cell divides, its entire DNA is copied, with half going to each new cell. This picture shows the nucleus (or command center, which contains the DNA) of one of two new daughter cells. But the DNA in this cell has somehow become caught, and is being pulled between the two, causing it to unfold and deforming the nucleus’ usually circular form. Ezequiel Miron, University of Oxford
The retina, located at the back of the eye, contains light-sensitive cells responsible for converting light into electrical nerve signals that the brain can process. As a result of ageing or injury the retina can lose this function, causing vision loss. The final visualization was created by digitally stitching together over 400 images to form one large image, showing the entire surface of a mouse retina Gabriel Luna, Neuroscience Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara
This 3D model of a healthy mini-pig eye shows the complexity of the system. The dent on the right-hand side of the image is the pupil, the opening that allows light to enter the eye. The blood vessels bring energy and food to the muscles surrounding the iris, which controls the amount of light entering the eye. Peter M Maloca, OCTlab at the University of Basel and Moorfields Eye Hospital, London; Christian Schwaller; Ruslan Hlushchuk, University of Bern; Sébastien Barré

At first glance, Mark Bartley’s image of an iris clip is reminiscent of water pouring through a dam. Yellow and blue waves of the 70-year-old patient’s iris appear to stream through the thinly outlined acrylic implant. Beautiful as it is functional, this tiny piece of plastic is the solution for many patients’ vision woes, bringing the world back into sharp focus.

This image is one of the 22 winners from this year’s Wellcome Image Awards. Now in its 20th year, the contest celebrates striking visuals that “communicate significant aspects of healthcare and biomedical science” chosen by a panel of nine judges made up of medical science experts and science communicators. They were selected from the pool of images submitted to the Wellcome image picture library this past year.

The winning images capture a variety of subject matter, including vessels of a healthy mini-pig eye, the language pathways through the brain and the rainbow of stains used to study the development of placentas from mice. “I think [this year’s winners] will make people think not just about how wonderful the images are but how science works and how, as scientists, we gather data,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute and a judge for this year’s contest, says in a video about the awards.

Judges bestowed additional honors on the image of the iris clip, naming it this year's Julie Dorrington Award recipient, which celebrates exceptional photography captured in clinical environments. Taking images of the human eye is no easy task since it is in constant motion. Even more challenging is lighting: The organ's complexity only shines through in the most optimal light conditions. Bartley has great experience in clinical photography, working as the senior medical photographer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England since his appointment in 2003.

The overall winner for the contest this year is a digital illustration intended to portray the illustrator Oliver Burston’s personal experience with Crohn’s disease, a chronic disease resulting in inflammation of the digestive tract. The haunting image features Stickman, the alter ego of the illustrator whose skeletal appearance demonstrates the weight loss and frailty the disease can impart.

The winners were presented with awards yesterday during a ceremony at the Wellcome Library headquarters in London. All 22 winning images will be available on the awards website and displayed in 12 different exhibitions located at science centers, museums and galleries, both throughout the UK and internationally.

So take a moment to page through these spectacular images and appreciate the surprisingly beautiful and often unseen inner workings of life.

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