2017 (Perspex, zinc plates, ink, steel, family medical scans and photos)

It Runs in the Family is a personal family portrait created in response to two visits to CERN, a European research organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. The piece also pays tribute to CERN’s open research and contributions in developing a PET scan device prototype targeting breast cancer. PET scanners focus on metabolic activity, and use scintillating crystals and detector plates (which act as cameras) to capture and translate photons into visible light, creating images of active tumours in the body.

At CERN, I was interested in investigating the medical applications derived from CERN technologies and experiments, and how they might impact the average person’s life. I met with a team from the Knowledge Transfer Group who walked me through some of the technologies used in both the Large Hadron Collider’s particle detectors and PET scanners used for cancer diagnosis. The team was working on a dedicated PET scan device for breast cancer, attempting to improve the ability to detect smaller tumours (from current 5mm measurements down to 2 mm) and to cut costs, effectively saving lives by diagnosing recurrences at an earlier stage.

PET scans focus on metabolic activity. A radioactive tracer is injected into a patient on molecules like glucose. Glucose travels to areas requiring higher amounts of energy like actively growing tumours. The tracer experiences a radioactive decay, and a positron (or anti-electron) is emitted and quickly annihilates when it encounters an electron. This annihilation event of matter/antimatter in the body releases a burst of photons traveling in opposite directions. The photons pass through packaged blocks of extremely dense scintillating crystals and are transformed into visible light, which is captured by plate-like detectors (or cameras) fitted behind them. The data can be traced back to a single point, and annihilation by annihilation, a 3D image with precise location of a tumour is formed.

The prototype PET scanner targeting breast cancer consists of two standing plates, which differs from today’s large circular full-body PET devices. Rather than lying on a bed while the whole body is scanned, a patient lies facedown on a padded table with their breast hanging through a hole and between the plates. The plates move in and out and circle around the breast to take images from different angles. PET scan imagery can be combined with CT scans to give a more complete picture of metabolic activity within the body’s structure.

Cancer impacts so many of us these days, and CERN’s open access and mission to share their technologies and research affect us in ways we wouldn’t normally imagine. It Runs in the Family is my tribute to that research and open spirit, and to my family members who’ve been affected by cancer.

It Runs in the Family was shown at the Four Corners Gallery as part of the CSM x CMS: Entangled exhibition, and at the Windows Gallery at Central Saint Martins, Kings Cross.