Uncovering Stories of Spare Parts at King's

Our forthcoming SPARE PARTS season explores the possibilities of regenerated, enhanced or donated parts that can be altered through choice or destiny. What are the emotional and psychological aspects of living with an organic or engineered spare part? How are they actually created and transplanted? What is their potential to exist outside of the biological body, to be shared and exchanged?

Pauline Meyer is a BSc Psychology student on Guy’s Campus, spending the summer with Science Gallery London as part of the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship scheme. She has been mapping the internal research landscape at King’s; identifying and interviewing researchers and clinicians relevant to the Spare Parts season. Here she shares her findings:

 

Inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the ethics, aesthetics, economics and science of transplantation, regeneration and prosthetics, are numerous and varied. All, however, are unified by a drive to improve and innovate. But this drive has created a divergence in opinions: is the push forward to develop life-changing technologies justifiable when we examine its resulting ethical implications? Questions like this as well as practical, financial, biological and cultural barriers, shape the discourse and provide the backdrop for those working in this area who I have had the pleasure of interviewing this month.

So how have emerging technologies impacted scientific fields to which they seem only loosely related? One clinician spoke of people using social media to “shop for” or ‘altruistically’ offering organs for donation. These new methods of communication and connection are posing problems as well as highlighting existing ones; there are waiting lists and issues with organ matching that cannot be circumvented, but these things could benefit from the advancement that new technology affords.

Not to be overlooked is the interface between the human, the (biomedical) technology, and the impact of the latter on the former: psychological wellbeing, arguably still an underfunded and under-researched area can significantly impact the outcomes of medical procedures. One clinician spoke of a relationship between stress and wound healing and argued that psychologically preparing people for surgery is advantageous for recovery across a number of indicators.

Do individuals integrate their spare part into their sense of self? How are spare parts perceived by societies and what, in turn, can they reveal about society? One researcher, working on comparative literature, spoke of how illness narratives (how illness is spoken about) differ across cultures and that culture can impact how individuals view spare parts.

A case in point is breast cancer – the text she studied explored the position of women in society and how their bodies are portrayed. The author reflected on the way exposure to social injustice and environmental toxins impacted her body, stating that she was “bound to get ill one way or another”. Her developing breasts, which she “could do nothing about” were an object of envy, vilification and glorification. Her breasts and now lack thereof had always caused her problems. She refused to have a spare part to replace what she felt represented a strong symbol of femininity.

Individuals who require or are offered a spare part are not a homogenous group. Many factors such as their existing social identity have an impact on their relationship to their spare part. Technology is being developed at King’s to facilitate the desires of those who long for a lifelike prosthesis: work is underway to create 3D cameras to capture the exact colour and texture of the patient's skin. Photo-stable pigments are being developed to ensure that the prosthesis does not need to be replaced so often due to colour changing.

This technology will allow for cost and time savings for both the patient and the NHS. For some, functionality and aesthetic is more important than lifelikeness. The Alternative Limb Project was founded by Sophie de Oliveira Barata who sees the “potential of prosthetics as an extension of the wearer’s personality” and creates technologically advanced, beautiful, and practical objects allowing an individual’s body becomes the meeting point of technology and art. Does this signal a new direction for personalised medicine?

The research landscape at King’s is far richer than this word count allows for. It has been exhilarating getting a small insight into the worlds of those working at the forefront of science and culture related to our upcoming season.

 

The Open Call for submissions for the SPARE PARTS season is only open until Sunday 16th of July so make sure to submit soon!

The picture Snake Arm is of a prosthetic limb created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata, photo by Rosemary Williams.