Glassblowers, or gaffers as they are nicknamed, have been used for the last 100 years to create scientific instruments, but never before has glass been a solution for prosthetic human body parts. The latest opportunity arose when the NHS approached Durran, a glass-blower, artist and curator from Leytonstone, while they were working on creating a non-reactive and detailed mould for tissue-engineered cartilage for patients who had lost their noses to disease, with the potential for the technology to work on other parts of the body.
It is bespoke glass manufacturing. It is opening up the possibilities of what healthcare can do with glass
Struggling to find a method to create a detailed mould for the re-construction the NHS looked to Durran, a glass-blower who had specialised in sculpture, and an array of other projects including exhibits, photograms, and even the production of a bio-fuel.
“I sometimes work with a scientific glass company…The Royal Free Hospital came to them and asked them to help produce some instruments, however they encountered a problem and asked me if I could help them,” Matthew Durran told Humans Invent.
“So I went into the laboratories that are part of University College London and the Royal Free, that are part of the re-construction department. I saw that what they were doing wasn’t working very well, and I said I could make moulds a lot better, and that I would be happy to come up with some samples.
“I asked what moulds they would like, and they said why don’t you take a mould of your nose? I made a rubber moulding of my nose, and there is a process of block casting, but when they sterilise it, the temperature rises very quickly, and it was breaking the glass, so I had to find a new type of glass that could take the temperature and wouldn’t break. Once we did that, it was perfect for what they wanted to do because with glass you can sterilise it, and see through the glass to see tissue and cell growth developing.”
Starting with a computer-generated 3D representation and then the plaster cast of his own nose, Durran began to implement his own technique – ‘slumping.’ This is the laying of warm glass over a plaster cast with hand-crafted precision and detail, that can produce an exact replica of the human nose, and in theory, any other human body part.
“Basically they use my glass mouldings to strike a positive in a polymer material which is constructed in a way that is like an Aero bar, with a hard surface, but in the middle there are lots of bubbles”, Durran explains.
The next step is to quite literally place the part on a patient’s body to grow cells over the top of it.“This allows them to inject cells into those areas, and once the patient’s cells are in that material they can feed the cells over a period of time. So effectively you have a working and growing nose, and then it goes to transplant in the patient’s arm which allows skin growth and blood vessels to develop, and that takes around a year and then it is on a patients face.”
The genius of using glass for this process is twofold. It can be sterilised to prevent infections, and of course it’s transparent – so doctors can easily check on the cells’ growth. “I don’t think there is another material that you can do that with,” says Durran.
“They then have to construct the nose, like the nostrils, but I can construct through the moulding a good accuracy of what the patient had before, so there is a good chance of it not being rejected. Obviously the mould is something that is alien to you, your body goes into a natural rejection, so they found it linked perfectly with what was already on the patient’s face.”
The potential for this procedure is huge: you could conceivably use it for any other human appendage, distinctive feature, element of the digestive system or even blood vessel.
“What I didn’t realise was that it is going to become quite a standard operation, not just with noses, but with ears, throats, voice-boxes and lots of different components.”
We’ve not yet reached the age of the factory line ear just yet though. ”Each of us have our own measurements, so it isn’t something that can be stamped out through an industrial machine process,” says Durran.
“It is very much tailor made and bespoke for each patient, so I get measurements and drawings, and have to adapt the glass to the specifics in a mould form so they can strike the polymer for the patient.”
The ground-breaking leap is that the technology from Durran has already been used to create a synthetic windpipe, saving a 36-year-old man’s life in Sweden, proving that “off-the-shelf” organs not only work, but that they prove that doctors do not need to rely on real-life or donors, or organs from the deceased.
“At the moment it is a lot of research and development, but they call it being used on ‘live patients.’ The throat mould has actually already successfully gone onto a patient and it is working really for him. In fact it was a life saving operation”, Durran told Humans Invent.
“The period of time on working on something to going live and active is very short, which is really good. Before I have done projects which have to go through committees and red tape.”
“We have only just started working with this material, but the possibilities moving forward are there. They are talking about doing veins that run the whole length of the body. The important thing is it isn’t reliant on that patient donating anything, or another donor, it is a synthetic material that will last a long time.”
Aside from the ground-breaking science, the process could hand a new lease of life to a dying trade.
The origins of glassblowing date back to the Phoenicians in 50 BC, with the earliest evidence a collection of waste from a glass workshop in the Old City of Jerusalem. The technique spread with the rise of the Roman Empire, through to the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods with two types of glass-blowing developing, free-blowing and mold-blowing.
I asked what moulds they would like, and they said why don’t you take a mould of your nose?
Traditional hand-crafted glass-blowing has become more specialised since the introduction of mass-mold-machinery, and Durran’s new technique can only achieve the detail required if the process in meticulously carried out by hand.
“From my point of view it is interesting that if it becomes globally a standard operation, you will need someone like me in that country or town, to do the moulds. In an age where everything is mass produced, for this technology you would have to work with a glass blower from that locality.
“The glass manipulation has to be hand-crafted, it is bespoke glass manufacturing. It is opening up the possibilities of what healthcare can do with glass,” says Durran. “This new technology is extremely niche. Hopefully it will spread world-wide in the near future, and help many people in need.”