Matt is an artist working with glass, who had never planned to work in the medical world. But when an opportunity came up that involved growing human noses within glass moulds, he jumped at the chance.
Just under the railway bridge at the end of a row of shops, there is a red door with frosted glass. The only suggestion of an artist’s residence is the pressed ceramic house number screwed to the wall. We ring the bell tentatively half expecting it to be the wrong address, but with a clunk of keys and a swing of the door Matt Durran, an artist working in glass, welcomes us in.
We first heard about Matt’s work through the Craft Council. He didn’t seem an obvious choice for a healthcare publication like this one, but after a bit of research around his work, we were fascinated and got in contact. Matt prides himself on his variety of work. Over the years his explorations have taken him from ancient lava-formed obsidian to stockpiled waste glass and the frontiers of new technologies. He has created unique pieces of installation art, up cycled waste glass as well as solved specific problems for the medical industry. One of Matt’s early jobs was carving ice for an events company back in the 1990s. He said, “It seemed a bit crazy, you’d do all that work for it just to melt away so I wanted to do something more permanent and was really intrigued by glass.” He started on lots of different projects using glass but quickly realised that he needed to understand the material technology side. When he got the opportunity to study in Sunderland and Copenhagen he jumped at it. He was fascinated with the technical and cultural differences in approach between the two countries. This led to a re-evaluation of his practice.
Matt’s insight into the material possibilities of glass, alongside his artistic ability to make creative leaps made him the obvious choice for the team at the Royal Free Hospital. They needed bespoke, highly accurate products but hadn’t managed to find a medical glass maker who could produce exactly what they were looking for, which was to create a non-reactive, detailed mould for tissue-engineered cartilage specifically to create a nose. Matt knew it could be done. He said, “Glass is the perfect material to use for this, it’s been used in the medical industry for 250 years, it can be sterilised easily, it’s inert and you can see cells growing through the material. It can also be manipulated to exact requirements.”
His creative approach allowed him to experiment with a number of different moulds until he happened upon one that would work perfectly. He began with a plaster cast of his own nose and then used a technique called slumping – laying warm glass over a mould with painstaking care – to make several glass moulds of his own nose. The moulds were then filled with a synthetic material, which contained the patients cells to create the scaffolding of the nose. It was then grown in a bioreactor. Once the basic structure of the nose was created it was attached to the inside of the patients forearm. This bio-integration allows blood vessels to populate it and skin to fix to it, a process that can take months. Then after successful bio-integration the nose is surgically removed from the forearm and carefully attached to the face. Matt said, “Although my part’s a small one, it’s an important part.’’ Getting the nose accurate for people is very important so the detail of the mould had to be just right. A lot of the patients lose their nose through cancer and other illnesses.
Losing something so central to the face can bring a loss of identity and self esteem, so this process allows patients to get back the important body part as well as their confidence. Since that first nose Matt has gone on to make a lot of different moulds for noses, ears and even voice boxes. He said, “Each nose job was completely different. I remember one particular nose I needed to re-create had a real bend in it and I suggested straightening it out to which I was met with ‘no thanks, that’s what makes my nose unique’.”
The research around this type of surgery is still on going and Matt’s skills are still requested from time to time, but his next project is away from the medical field in macro glass sculpture. He added, “My father said to me… the best job in the world is the one that’s different every day. If that’s true, then I guess I have the best job in the world.” Matt’s creative input opened doors for researchers that were previously closed. He researched, experimented and created moulds that were simple in production but detailed in execution giving patients the confidence to once again be comfortable in their own skin. An artist working in glass may be the last person you would associate with the medical industry but researchers may now increasingly look to local craftsmen to play a vital part in the process, acknowledging that problems sometimes need that external creative input to reach the desired outcome.