Penny Byrne #BloodDiamond

future, health

Can we levitate a single red blood cell?

Malaria in humans is caused by Plasmodium parasites that infect red blood cells. Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. Despite around 212 million cases of malaria reported in 2015, deaths from the disease have dropped dramatically since 2010. This is partly due to improved diagnostics, allowing swift treatment. In severe infections it is possible to see the parasites in a blood sample using a microscope, but more sensitive tests are needed to diagnose all infections.

#BloodDiamond explores two new reseach techniques for detecting malaria: acoustic levitation and attenuated total reflection (ATR) sampling in conjunction with infrared spectroscopy. Acoustic levitation uses sound to levitate a single drop of blood and ATR uses a diamond to reflect an infrared beam of light through a blood sample to detect malaria parasites.

A large single red blood cell levitates and glows as the visitor enters the exhibition room. This is a healthy blood cell. Using an infrared camera or augmented reality Hololens headset, Plasmodium infected blood cells can be detected within the space, each identifiable by distinctive changes in cell morphology.

Installation and levitating sculpture, 2017
Image: Courtesy of the artist, photo by Matthew Stanton


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The Artist: Penny Byrne

Penny Byrne is a visual artist whose work covers a wide range of topics from politics, to social justice issues and the environment. She works with varied materials including ceramics, bronze and glass, and is increasingly becoming known for creating immersive experiences in her solo exhibitions.
At school Penny was interested in art and in science, particularly biology. She was encouraged to follow her creative side, but her interest in science did not diminish. More recently she has become fascinated by light, particularly the invisible UV and infrared spectra, and how this might be applied creatively.