Women with Allergan breast implants may sue over cancer link

UK women claim they were not told enough about potential risk of rare breast cancer

A group of more than 200 women are considering legal action over controversial breast implants that have been linked to a rare form of cancer.

The women claim they were not sufficiently informed about the risks of textured Allergan implants, which were pulled from the European market in December. Six of the women developed anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL), a rare blood cancer that has been linked to textured implants.

Irene Kennedy, 49, was diagnosed with ALCL in December, eight years after getting her implants. “I hadn’t heard of it, I didn’t know anything about it at all,” said Kennedy, who lives in Leeds. “It’s very scary.”

Kennedy has since had her implants and the surrounding scar tissue removed, which normally leads to a full recovery without the need for chemotherapy. But she remains anxious about the possibility of the cancer returning and wants to see greater awareness of the risks associated with breast implants.

“If someone said ‘By the way, you could get a cancer’ your ears would prick up and it would be more of a thoughtful process you’d go through,” she said.

Three of the women considering legal action were given the implants after having preventative mastectomies to protect against high genetic risk of breast cancer and now fear they may be at increased risk of getting a different cancer.

Others in the group have suffered different complications, such as capsular contracture, where breast tissue hardens around the implant, or say they were not warned about the link with ALCL, which the UK regulator first alerted doctors to in 2011. The implants were withdrawn from the market last year.

Sarah Moore, a solicitor at the law firm Leigh Day who is investigating a potential group claim on behalf of the women, said many of the women reported that they received no warning, or inadequate warning, about the risk of developing ALCL and that had they been fully informed they would never have opted to have these procedures.

“Many of [them] are extremely angry that in choosing to have a procedure intended to improve self-esteem and wellbeing they have been exposed to the risk of developing a potentially life-threatening, and entirely avoidable, type of cancer,” she said.

“Many of these women have familial histories of cancer and so were hyper-alert to information relating to cancer risk, no matter how rare,” Moore added.

Figures collected by plastic surgeons suggested that globally there have been at least 615 cases of the disease associated with breast implants and 16 deaths. In the UK, where textured implants have been generally favoured by surgeons, there have been 45 confirmed cases of the lymphoma, and one fatality. The health regulator estimated the risk at one in 24,000 women with implants.

The cancer forms in the scar capsule around the implant and normally begins with pain and swelling in the breast. Women who have the implants and capsules removed can make a full recovery, but if left untreated the disease can spread throughout the body and become life-threatening.

Last year, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps) advised its members to stop using Allergan implants as a precaution, but said the scientific data did not suggest the need to remove or exchange any current implants. A French regulatory agency declined to renew the CE mark for Allergan’s textured implant in December but the company said it is currently working with the regulator to renew its approval to market the product.

In a statement, Allergan said the company is committed to strict adherence to all regulatory requirements and rigorous scientific evidence.

The company added: “Patient safety and product quality are Allergan’s highest priorities. Allergan continues to stand firmly behind the benefit/risk profile of its breast implant products, including textured breast implants. The benefit risk profile of textured implants – based on scientific evidence – remains positive.”

The health regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which recently published guidance on ALCL and breast implants, said there was no need for women with Allergan breast implants to have them removed or have any additional clinical follow up.

“MHRA has worked closely with clinical stakeholders to raise awareness of this rare disease,” it said in a statement.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/10/women-with-allergan-breast-implants-may-sue-over-cancer-link

Health secretary wants NHS to roll out genetic tests to detect diseases

Matt Hancock hails ‘game-changer’ but critics raise racial bias and ‘fatalism’ concerns

The health secretary is calling for predictive genetic tests for common cancers and heart disease to be rolled out on the NHS without delay.

Matt Hancock, speaking at the Royal Society on Wednesday, revealed he recently took a commercial genetic test that showed he was at heightened risk of developing prostate cancer, saying he was shocked by the result. Hancock called for a national debate about the ethical issues around testing for diseases, some of which could not readily be treated.

He said: “We must get predictive testing into the NHS as soon as we possibly can. I see it as a game-changer for cancer screening in the NHS and I’m determined that we harness this technology to save lives.”

However, the prospect of a rapid rollout of genetic testing has attracted criticism. The tests, which have been largely developed using genetic data from white Europeans, give less accurate results for people from different ethnic backgrounds. Using them to guide health interventions could entrench health inequalities within screening programmes.

Prof David Curtis, a geneticist and psychiatrist at University College London, who has previously raised concerns about racial bias in genetics, said: “You simply can’t have an NHS test that only works for white people. How can you contemplate this?”

Others have raised concerns that genetic tests could create unnecessary stress or confusion or lead to “genetic fatalism”, where people abandon efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle on the belief they are genetically destined to get a particular illness.

Hancock, 40, recently took a commercial test looking at his genetic risk of 16 diseases. He was at below average risk for most conditions but said: “My risk of prostate cancer by age 75 is almost 15%.” The average lifetime risk is about 12%.

“I was surprised, and concerned,” he said. “But I discussed what it meant with the doctor and when I realised that dying from prostate cancer is highly preventable, if caught at an early stage and with regular checks, I felt hugely relieved. The truth is this test may have saved my life.”

As a result, Hancock said, he has booked an appointment with his NHS GP to discuss the correct course of action. However, Curtis said the health secretary had “massively misinterpreted” his score, which he said revealed he had a fairly average risk of prostate cancer.

“As a result of his misunderstanding, he first suffered unnecessary anxiety and then took up valuable medical time having to be counselled about the reality of the situation. Now he is going to waste even more of the NHS’s scarce resources by booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist,” he said. “As a health secretary, he displays a quite astonishing level of ignorance about the NHS.”

Curtis said the value of genetic testing for common diseases had been overstated, since only people at the extremes of the distribution would have significantly higher or lower risk than average.

The company that carried out Hancock’s test, Genomics Plc, has developed similar genetic risk tests for a range of other common conditions including coronary heart disease, breast cancer, asthma and diabetes.

Prof Peter Donnelly, the company’s founder and CEO, said: “I think this is the area where genetics will have its biggest impact on healthcare because it’s all of the common diseases.”

He said that screening programmes for diseases such as breast cancer could be guided by genetic risk, meaning that those at greatest risk would enter screening at a younger age. “A [high risk] women in her early 40s has the same risk as a typical woman in her 60s or a [low risk] woman well into her 70s,” he said. “The world we’re in where we screen women just based on age and offer mammography at 50 just doesn’t make sense.”

He said there remained critical questions about the extent to which people from minority ethnic backgrounds were disadvantaged when it came to test results. Early tests suggested the company’s tests provided information about risk for ethnic minorities, but with less precision.

Donnelly said: “One has to even think really hard about whether it should be rolled out now when it’s more useful for some individuals than others, or if we should wait until we’ve got better data and better methods that help people from different ancestries.”

Hancock has also urged researchers to share more genetic information, saying: “Data, funded by the British taxpayer, donated by the public, can’t be used for predictive testing because of bureaucratic blocking or a scientist wanting to have a monopoly: that’s an outrage. We will unlock that data because we must save lives.”

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/mar/20/health-secretary-matt-hancock-wants-nhs-to-rollout-genetic-tests-to-detect-diseases

I thought I’d grieved the death of my sister – until I found this retreat

A week in Wales with a lifeboat of fellow passengers reaps surprising results

Iam stretched out on a mattress in front of a log fire, tears running down my face, crying for my sister, as my mother strokes my hair and whispers into my ear. I have cried many times for my sister – she died when we were children, and I am now 56 – but I’ve never been soothed like this before. It feels amazing.

The woman touching my face and shoulders with such love is not my actual mother, who is hundreds of miles away. I am in the oak-panelled great hall of a Victorian country mansion beside the River Usk in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, and my carer is Turiya Hanover, co-founder of the Path of Love retreats.

I’m not afraid of either vulnerability or honesty, I announced proudly at the first group session of this week-long retreat. I’m sorted. I then went from being the most confident in the room to the most terrified in the space of – what? – 90 minutes. The first session of this “journey” took place in the great hall where our lives were now based. We were asked to say something about ourselves and what we intended to commit to during the seven-day spirituality-based personal development workshop. I was more interested in saying something about what I would not commit to. I had my story worked out; I knew what mattered, what I thought was negotiable, what I thought was not. I commit to hear your stories, I said generously to my fellow travellers. I still thought that was what I was here to do.

But then the ground below me, which had seemed so firm and solid, turned to quicksand. Suddenly I was terrified. I ran from the room, keen to catch the first train home. Turiya came to find me: she held my hand, and she wiped away my tears. I told her I was done with grieving, but realised Clare’s death is the gateway to everything else in my story: to dig as deep as was needed, I would have to go through the tunnel of mourning yet again. She looked at me, and I knew she understood.

Turiya asked me to go back into the room with her. She’d stay by my side. By now the rest of the group – we were 40-strong – were doing a meditation, lying on mattresses on the floor in the dimly lit hall. I lay on a mattress, and she lay next to me, wiping my tear-coursed face, whispering in my ear. And that was when I knew that I was being looked after the way I should have been looked after, the way no bereaved child can be looked after because whatever has devastated the child’s life has inevitably devastated the parents’ lives, and so I had grieved as so many children grieve – alone.

I would have to go through the tunnel of mourning yet again

All the same, I wanted to leave. I wrote as much in my workbook that night, in the space that said: “What is your intention for tomorrow?” So how did I end up not only staying, but loving it? The transformation, like all transformations, started with me.

I hadn’t entirely thought Path of Love would be a breeze. I’d signed a form agreeing to the rules, and they were scary. We would be in silence, except during therapy; there was no alcohol, no drugs, no cigarettes, no mobiles, no contact with the outside world, no sex, and no sloping off to hide in your room.

In effect, we were children again – in a nursery with very clear boundaries. If we talked, we were scolded; if we were late, the whole group had to wait. It was tough love, but also an extraordinary opportunity. Because we were being given the chance, as Rafia Morgan, Turiya’s Path of Love co-founder, put it, to “go down into the basement of our souls and dig out the shit”. There was no possibility of anyone not having any in their basement: the only question was, who would be brave enough to take a shovel, to open a door and clean it out?

Our base became our small group of 10, which we were encouraged to think of as our “lifeboat”, sat in horseshoe formation, two therapists alongside, and four or five observers behind a table. This wasn’t a place of storytelling. We were given guidance about what to look for down in the basement, as it were, after which we came forward and stood before the entire group of about 15, and told them what we had found. At times there were raised voices, shouting, wailing, sobbing.

“From the outside we look as though we’re in an asylum,” Turiya whispered in my ear. But by this stage we all knew that contained in our madness was our sanity, and that in our weakness lay our strength.

Here’s why: because from those basement excavations came the chance to say things we had never said, sometimes to people long dead. We have all been wronged at some point in the past: ignored, overlooked, abandoned, bereaved. Some of us have been used; some of us have been abused. We carry these scars in our deepest crevices, and usually we don’t get the chance to properly feel the grief, the anger, the injustice, the pain. The Path of Love process gave us that chance, in a clever and natural way. I felt myself being healed, and around me others were being healed as well – often from pain far more complicated than my own.

Every day of the seven days brought new revelations about ourselves, new discoveries, newly exposed layers of our personalities. Every time I thought I was done, I quickly realised there was even more to find out. We’d been told not to bring any novels or work of any kind: there would be more than enough to do dealing with what we had inside ourselves. I couldn’t imagine that was true, and had come armed with a novel. Not only did it go unread, but I found myself waking at three or four in the morning and realising there was no possibility of returning to sleep: these were hours I needed, to go through the huge changes taking place inside myself.

We knew things about each other no one else had ever known

Path of Love is an immersive experience – it takes you completely out of your normal self. Hanover and Morgan, the co-founders, met in the Osho International Centre in Pune, India, and the retreat they’ve devised owes something to the spirituality of the controversial so-called “Orange People” led by the late spiritual guru Osho (formerly known as Rajneesh). They’ve taken with them the principles of honest self-evaluation and added in an at-times brutal model of group psychotherapy. However scary it is, though (and it sometimes was very scary), I always felt well supported and looked-after: all the leaders on the retreat are trained, experienced psychotherapists. I had a sense of being “in with the psychotherapy in-crowd”, with professionals who saw the Path of Love as the toughest personal challenge around.

Each evening brought a meditation, and these drew on a broad array of thinkers including professor and author Brené Brown on vulnerability and the late Catholic priest John O’Donohue on Celtic tradition. Here are some things there were a lot of on my Path of Love adventure: dancing, blindfolds, mattresses, badges. More dancing, cushions, soup, fruit. Yet more dancing (I lost 3lb), Kleenex, water bottles, reminders to go for a pee. We had checked out of our ordinary lives for a whole week, with no to-do list except, perhaps, a list that had only one item on it: me, and my psychological health.

In the final hours of the retreat, we were allowed to speak recreationally again and we realised that while we knew things about each other that no one else outside the group had ever known, there were many ordinary things that we didn’t know. Usually we meet people from the outside in – on this retreat, we had got to know people from the inside out. The rest of the group, aged from their mid-20s to their mid-60s, were from across the globe. They were actors and accountants, bankers and yoga teachers. At around £2,300 (with accommodation and food), Path of Love isn’t cheap – but there’s a fund to help the less-well-off to attend.

In the end, having been so keen to leave, I could hardly tear myself away. I realised that to move on and give life our best shot, we need to start by looking not outside ourselves but inside. Into the deepest crevices, the darkest caves and the sheerest drops of our beings. Path of Love gave me the chance to do that. Three months on, I continue to feel changed, and lightened, and validated by the experience.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/23/i-thought-id-grieved-the-death-of-my-sister-until-i-found-this-retreat-path-of-love

Anna Wintour may settle for less, but I’ve grown out of bad coffee

I used to drink copious amounts of Starbucks, but that was when I drank lattes, or, as my friend calls them, giant cups of milk

Saturday Guardian fans (my favourite people) may have read the brilliant interview with Anna Wintour in The Fashion supplement a few weekends ago. I am afraid I was disappointed by a certain reveal (and I use the word “reveal” loosely, as I was widely mocked by friends who said this was a well-known fact): Wintour drinks Starbucks coffee. Anna Wintour, the world’s chicest. Drinks Starbucks. Not the worst ever coffee, but a close second, behind Costa (it should be criminalised). In the same interview, Wintour talked about playing tennis with her good friend Roger Federer. Starbucks. You can see the discrepancy here.

Anyway, those friends responded with “duh” and an eye-roll when I mentioned this (had I never seen The Devil Wears Prada? Or The September Issue? I’ve seen both, but maybe I blocked the Starbucks cups from my mind).

I, too, used to drink copious amounts of Starbucks, but that was when I drank lattes, or, as my friend calls them, “giant cups of milk”. I am now a flat-white girl and take my coffee more seriously (look, I’m from Liverpool and have zero interest in food or drink for the most part; I didn’t expect this development, either).

The problem with good coffee is that once it grasps the taste buds with the vigour of a newborn grasping a lock of hair, it is difficult to go back to any old sludge. I have managed to cut my intake down to two a day: I carry them around in a luminous reusable cup and sup my anti-fatigue elixir at the Guardian’s morning conference and again after lunch. Of course, I know that giving up caffeine is supposed to make one more energised – but it’s no longer just about the hit.

If I am not working in the office, I go to one of my favourite cafes and drink a (Fairtrade) Colombian blend, and revel in the fact I am consuming something which, while bringing me much pleasure, is not as bad for me as so many other things I might be imbibing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not so obsessed that I have spent a lot of money I cannot afford on a home espresso machine. But I am at the stage where, if I don’t think the coffee will be up to scratch, I order tea. I have grown out of bad coffee. It doesn’t have to be from a fancy place; there is a kiosk close to my nearest station that sells great coffee. An Italian man owns it, naturally. (PS: Try ordering a “latte” in Italy, where it just means “milk”.) I am not sure it is true that brewing coffee before showing a potential buyer around your home increases the likelihood of a purchase, as is claimed, but reader: I can 100% believe it.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/22/anna-wintour-may-settle-for-less-but-ive-grown-out-of-bad-coffee

Wellness is swallowing the fashion industry whole. Should I switch camps?

To be fair, my beat has had a good innings. For a hundred years, it has made billions of pounds out of selling us stuff that boosts our self-esteem

I’m thinking of giving up writing about clothes and catwalk shows and reviewing bra tops and yoga classes instead. The latest “in” look for abs; whose mat was in the front row – that sort of thing. What do you think? After nearly two decades as a fashion editor, I feel as though it’s a straightforward transfer of my skillset.

It’s time for me to jump ship because wellness is killing fashion. To be fair, it has had a good innings. For a hundred years, it has made billions of pounds out of selling us stuff that boosts our self-esteem/makes us feel more attractive/makes us appear richer and more successful. Stuff, though – that’s the problem. Fashion is stuff and stuff is, like, so 20th century. No one wants stuff any more. We want glowing skin and a 110-minute half-marathon time and inner peace and Michelin-starred kombucha instead. That’s what aspirational looks like in 2019. Wellness does exactly what fashion used to do, which is sell you a dream version of you, only it’s better for you and doesn’t create landfill. Game over.

The cannibalisation of fashion by wellness began with athleisure. Around the beginning of this decade, £100 running leggings were suddenly a thing. Why would anyone spend £100 on leggings, normal people asked? And the fashion industry was like, sideways glance to camera, “the leggings aren’t the point, you desire clothes for the life transformation they promise. You ever hear of Cinderella?”

Fashion embraced those legging-curious newcomers with open arms. Come here, girl, we got you. But Lululemon leggings turned out to be a Trojan horse. A new and seductive industry grew up around the business of wellness. Boutique gyms instead of boutiques, gratitude journals instead of waiting lists. Expenditure and aspiration, but more virtuous.

Athleisure was just the start. This is a more significant culture shift than wearing leggings to brunch. The generation gap between millennials (those born between 1980 and 1999 or so) and fortysomethings is much wider than the one between fortysomethings and their baby-boomer parents. The instability of the world in which millennials have grown up has given them a sharply different understanding of what security looks like, of how investment works, of what their future environment will be. Wellness sounds made up to older people, but to a younger generation it is an investment in themselves in an uncertain world.

This cultural shift has been monetised rapidly. Notice how running, which was at the centre of the initial craze and costs nothing, has fallen off the radar in favour of £28 Pilates classes. You can tell that wellness is the new fashion because it has become so easy to spoof. There are £6,000 Chanel yoga mats. There is Mark Wahlberg starting his day at 3.40am with a 95-minute workout. And, of course, there is Gwyneth Paltrow – Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous for a new generation. On her website Goop, you can buy a candle called Church (£66 – free delivery, though) with a scent described as “cypress smoke, snow, sensual quiet”. Does snow have a scent? Or sensual quiet? Yet Paltrow is very much for real. Goop raised $50m in venture capitallast year. It has started opening bricks-and-mortar boutiques. It recently signed a content deal with Netflix.

For a shiny, modern industry, the optics of wellness can be strangely regressive. While fashion is – finally, slowly – addressing its diversity problem, the imagery of wellness seems to skew heavily towards skinny, white women. The ideal requires you to be time-rich and rich-rich. Two hours spent working out each day – let alone a five-day yoga retreat in a hilltop Balearic finca – is a pipe dream for most of us. Wellness, which should be bolstering, is in danger of becoming yet another thing for women to fail at. The vagueness of “clean eating” dangles the carrot of perfection just out of reach. Beneath the manuka-honey sweetness there is a competitive core. Perfecting your right hook at Kobox and honing your willpower with intermittent fasting is the glossy, feminine equivalent of those gruff survivalist types stockpiling tinned food and doing pull-ups in a weird basement.

Does it matter if wellness edges out fashion? A two-minute plank is a more wholesome status symbol than a two-carat diamond. If sleeping well and eating vegetables are now aspirational, that must be good. Going to a yoga workshop is better for you than buying a new pair of earrings, even if, at the fancier end of the scale, it isn’t any cheaper. Vaginal steamingcoffee enemasand “venom cheese” (Google it) give wellness a bad name, but then every bit of culture has its freakstore fringes. They say that runners run because they like running and joggers jog because they like cake, but, as far as your cardiovascular system goes, the result is the same. If wellness really is the new black, it’s fine by me. After all, monochrome looks particularly chic at yoga.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/mar/23/wellness-swallowing-fashion-industry-switch-camps

Social media addiction is not natural or normal – but is it really a disease?

Facebook et al have 3 billion users. We should be focusing on living with it, rather then abandoning, restricting or censoring it

Is social media addictive? The issue is complex, and probably generational.

It’s obvious that what social media does to us, especially those of us who are heavy users, is not natural, or normal. It’s not normal to submit opinions for approval every day to an online crowd, nor is it normal to consume the opinions of strangers in bulk. It’s not normal to live under the surveillance of software companies, which tailor their advertising with such eerie precision that it seems impossible that they are not listening in on our conversations. It’s definitely not normal to wake in the night to use social media, or to spend roughly 24 hours a week on it, returning again and again even though it can make us feel depressed and alone. None of these behaviours were normal a few decades ago, nor are they especially useful to us today, but they’re practised by billions of people across the world.

On Monday a report was published by an all-party parliamentary group (APPG), proposing that internet addiction could be classified as a disease, and that research into its impact on mental health could be funded by a taxing social media companies. The paper includes surveys showing that 27% of children who spend three or more hours a day online show symptoms of mental ill health, and called for “robust, longitudinal research” into the possibility of social media addiction.

Addiction is characterised by abnormal behaviour, but what is “normal” any more? Could anyone stand to live without a smartphone, in 2019, and to go without social media? There will be readers who argue it’s easy, but for a vast number trying to stay afloat in a precarious, internet-ravaged job market, the answer is no.

The stereotype of the basement-dwelling internet addict is not new – it’s more than two decades since Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saitō coined the term hikikomori to describe a generation of recluses in Japan, who traded their social lives for internet, video-game and media consumption and a state of “adolescence without end”. In 1995, The Unabomber manifesto asked that we “never forget that a human being with technology is exactly like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine”. Its author, Ted Kaczynski, is, of course, a murderer and a terrorist, and steeped in his own rigidly biased view of civilisation, but the line is prescient: we are the alcoholics, and the barrel is a collection of scrolling feeds we gorge on, drowning before we’ve had our fill. Add social media, and the result is a toxic brew of solipsism and information overload, the kind that one is either overwhelmed by, or turns one into a monster in order to survive. The UX design employed by these platforms is a maze of dark patterns and cues borrowed from the world of gambling. To use these sites is to become “addicted” – it’s in their interest that you never sign out, and keep generating data indefinitely.

Young boy on sofa in dark room watching touchpad illuminated with screen light
 ‘It’s definitely not normal to wake in the night to use social media, or to spend roughly 24 hours a week on it.’ Photograph: Guille Faingold/Stocksy

Three years ago I was advised by psychiatrists to avoid social media. 2016 was, by anyone’s standards, a fairly difficult year to be on the internet, but the experience had left me neurotic and self-loathing, experiencing multiple panic attacks every day. I spent more time online than with other people, and social media had narrowed my view of the world, encouraging me to think in binary terms of good and bad, like and dislike, the kind of black-and-white thinking common to personality disorders and depression.

The link between social media and this narrowing of perspective is well documented: back in 2011, the term “filter bubble” was popularised by Eli Pariser in his book of the same name. It describes the algorithmic hypnosis that companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter perform on their users, learning their habits and reinforcing them with tailored content. Social media, which once promised to act as a window to the world, has slowly but surely become an engine for a kind of global solipsism, a breeding ground for “fake news”, bias, compulsion and vanity – which profit the shareholders of these platforms.

One benefit of a disease classification would be that psychiatric professionals might take social media more seriously. On the other hand, it risks shifting focus away from governments, which have failed to regulate platforms, encouraging a culture where vulnerable individuals are at fault. While, in the US, the senator Elizabeth Warren recently proposed to break apart tech multinationals and rework antitrust laws, the MPs’ report feels unambitious, and more like a palliative measure.

Any resulting regulation must focus on living with social media, rather than abandoning, restricting or censoring it – even for children and young adults. We’re all cyborgs now: we outsource our emotions, our relationships and our working lives to the internet. Could this behaviour be a “disease”, when it threatens more than 3 billion users? For better or worse, might it not be an evolution?

• Roisin Kiberd is a writer based in Dublin focusing on technology, culture, and the intersection between the two. She tweets @roisinkiberd

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/19/social-media-facebook-addiction-not-natural-normal-disease

Do not fear the smear: how to overcome anxiety about cervical screening

Many women, particularly those who have survived sexual abuse, are scared of being tested. But there are ways to change this, from asking for a smaller speculum to singing Frozen hits

It was only three months. Four, at the most. Throughout, the letters kept coming, so regularly that Laura Flaherty didn’t need to open them to know what they contained: a repeated request for her to make an appointment for a cervical screening. The procedure gathers cells from your cervix, a narrow “neck” that joins the uterus to the top of the vagina, which are then screened. But it is better known as a smear test because cells that are removed from your cervix with the help of a speculum (a device that keeps the vaginal walls open) and a brush are then smeared on to a slide for analysis. Abnormal cells sometimes require further testing because they may indicate cervical cancer, the best-known gynaecological cancer and, in the UK, the most common cancer in women under 35.

It is also one of the most preventable cancers – if women go for smear tests. Screening is estimated to save 5,000 lives a year. It is 10 years since the reality TV star Jade Goody died of cervical cancer at the age of 27, after which the number of women having smear tests rose by a third. Now, rates of cervical screening are the lowest they have been for 20 years. Why?

Flaherty knew that smear tests were important, but she put it off. She was busy, with two small children and a job managing an aquarium near Manchester. She had no symptoms; she felt well. Who rushes to a smear test? They are embarrassing. There is a cold speculum. There is cold gel. There is a stranger talking to you while looking at your vulva. When Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust asked 2,017 British women how they felt about the test, it found that 35% were embarrassed about their body shape and 34% about what their vulva looked like, while 38% had concerns about smell.

On a lively Facebook group called Do Not Fear The Smear, I encounter Angela, a nurse from South Yorkshire. She is in the group to reassure women who are scared, who worry it will hurt. Women are always apologising to her, she says, because they haven’t shaved their legs or their feet smell. “They apologise for anything but their bits.” Angela doesn’t care; she just wants to do the test.

She understands why women are embarrassed or fearful: there is no more vulnerable position for a woman than on her back with her legs open. Women who have been sexually assaulted may find it particularly intimidating and Angela is sensitive to that. “I always make sure I’m OK to lock the door. Some don’t like it, if they’ve been abused.” She tries to keep her manner relaxed, but confident; you want a nurse who seems to know what she is doing.

Chloe Delevingne has a smear test live on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show
 Chloe Delevingne has a smear test live on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show. Photograph: BBC

On the other hand, she says: “I don’t want to appear over-bossy; if abuse has been going on, it’s somebody telling them what to do.”

Among its reams of helpful information, Jo’s has tips to soothe any fear. You can ask to insert the speculum yourself. You can ask for a smaller speculum. You can bring a friend to hold your hand. You can ask for an appointment before the scan just to talk about what will happen. You can hope for a nurse like Angela, who, when she feels someone’s belly tensing up before the speculum goes in, starts singing Let It Go from Frozen; who has a poem taped to the ceiling for her patients to read; who warns them that she has been warming the speculum with a light “so that they’ll get a tan in a place they’ve never had one before”.

“There are layers of worry,” says Dr Philippa Kaye, who works as a GP ambassador for Jo’s and who recently carried out a smear test on live TV, on Chloe Delevingne. By showing how quick and painless the smear test was – Kaye’s speculum and brush were in and out in under a minute – she hoped to melt some of the layers. “We didn’t use a screen because it was important to show that Chloe didn’t crawl off the bed afterwards. It wasn’t for shock value, but to empower. Information is empowerment.”

Yet there is no shortage of information. Women have been sent pamphlets and messages. There have been campaigns galore. Dawn Long, a 42-year-old accounts assistant from Cheshire, put off her smear test for 10 years. “I was scared there was something wrong,” she says. Ironic, really, because then she began to get a clear discharge and something was wrong. It took nine months for her cancer to be discovered.

I think people think that if they have cancer they can just get it lasered off. It’s not like that

Flaherty eventually went for screening, then waited six weeks for her results. Official targets are for 98% of women to get their results within 14 days of their appointment, but, as a damning report by the National Audit Office in February showed, only half do. Between January and June 2018, 43,220 women didn’t receive the invitations to cervical screening that they should have, while 4,508 did not receive their results letters. Even the regular operation of screening was judged unfit: the database used to assess who needs to be screened holds information in 83 separate databases, “making it hard to track screening histories when people move across geographical boundaries”. The IT system used to send out invitations is more than 30 years old. The database, the report concluded, is not fit for purpose.

Flaherty waited patiently, without worry. She felt well. But when the letter came it told her she had abnormal cells and that she should have a colposcopy – in which a microscope is used to examine the cervix – and then a biopsy, which removes tissue with a heated loop. “I always say that a letter made me ill. A letter arrived at my house and all of a sudden I was ill,” she says. Finally, she was invited to meet her consultant. She could read the news on his face. “I broke down and he let it happen. He knew I needed to let it go. I was saying: ‘I have two small children; if I die, they won’t remember me.’ After a minute, I took a deep breath and said: ‘How do we fix it?’” The answer was a hysterectomy.

Long’s cancer had to be treated with brachytherapy, a procedure that requires you to have hollow rods that target the cancer with radiation inserted into the cervix. “I think people think that even if they have cancer they can just get it lasered off. It’s not like that.” Long had four sessions of brachytherapy; with each session, she learned to ask for more pain medication.

A woman having a smear test
 Angela, a nurse on the Facebook group Do Not Fear The Smear, understands why women are embarrassed or fearful: there is no more vulnerable position for a woman than on her back with her legs open. Photograph: Getty Images

Of course, Long wishes she had gone for her test sooner. “My consultant says that the cancer would have been picked up, but women have had clear smears and still got cancer.” Flaherty’s cancer was so high up her cervix that it probably wouldn’t have been caught anyway. Both women have had the all-clear, but they continue to work formally and informally as outreach workers, volunteering to talk to women about cervical cancer. They can’t not.

Last week, Public Health England launched a huge campaign to raise the numbers of screenings, although critics say the system is already in meltdown, with labs closed and scientists departing. This is because screening is changing. Since 2008, girls aged 11 to 13 have been offered a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes nearly all cervical cancer. This year, the UK will switch to an HPV-primary screening system, whereby cells will first be tested for high-risk HPV (currently, cells are tested for HPV only if they are abnormal). This switch may save 500 lives a year. But it also means that far fewer cytologists will be needed, hence the exodus of staff, which will almost certainly lead to delays in women getting results, too.

Maybe self-sampling (SS) could help, too. This is the age of DIY, after all. We can operate our own supermarket checkouts and book our own holidays – surely we can get a swab of cervical cells without too much trouble? SS can “overcome both emotional (eg embarrassment or fear of pain) and practical (eg difficulty making appointments) barriers to cytological screening”, researchers at the Wolfson Institute for Cancer Prevention have written. Self-sampling has been trialled in plenty of countries; there have been a few pilot studies in the UK. “Non‑responders” – women who have not taken up screening invitations – are more likely to self-sample, but when they have to ask for the kits response rates are the same as with regular appointment letters. Now, cancer-prevention researchers are testing other options, such as providing the sample kits when a woman attends a GP or nurse appointment.

Something must change. Flaherty, Long, Angela: they are all hearing too often of women, including younger women, who are dead and shouldn’t be. Will it take another Goody? “I hope not,” says Flaherty. “Because it could have been me. I could have been the girl who died.” This is why she still volunteers her time. “I talk to young women and I start with the messages and they say: ‘Yes, yes, we know.’ When it’s a healthcare professional, you zone out. People think: ‘They’re saying it because they have to.’ Me, I’m saying it because I need to.” Then she tells them she had cancer, and they say: “‘Wow’ … because I don’t look any different. But it’s having it in front of them.”

Then, perhaps, they open the letters that could save their lives.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/18/do-not-fear-the-smear-how-to-overcome-anxiety-about-cervical-screening

Feel better now? The rise and rise of the anxiety economy

From squishy toys to colouring books to blankets, the anxiety business is worth billions. But is it all just making us even more anxious?

Consider the squishy. The point of the squishy, a palm-sized mass of polyurethane in the shape of a fruit or a croissant or a unicorn cat, occasionally scented with strawberry, is to squish. The point of the squishy is to be held in the hand of a person with energy that needs redirecting and for them to direct it into the soft heart of the squishy, to squeeze it into almost nothing in their palm, only for it to reinflate again, asking for more. In 1988 a TV writer called Alex Carswell threw a pen at a photo of his mother after a stressful phone call with his boss. It gave him an idea.

It was the “Age of Stress” – the Daily Mirror (among other newspapers) had identified it as “a killer” – and so the perfect time for Carswell to launch his “stress ball”. By the 1990s it had evolved from something squishy designed to be thrown into something squishy designed to be squeezed, and to be squeezed mainly by kids, who collected them in small scented families in their rucksacks. In a 2015 study of patients undergoing varicose vein surgery, those that handled stress balls reported feeling “less anxious”.

“When you’re stressed, your body tightens up,” says Dr Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute, explaining why throwing or squeezing something feels good, “so a physical release helps to let go of some of that energy.” Carswell was not the first person to link a calming of the mind to a busy-ness of a hand – in 206 BC, the Han dynasty in China trained to stay mentally focused during combat by squeezing walnuts. The croissant squishy comes from an ancient place.

That repeated action led to fidget spinners becoming one of the most popular items bought on Amazon in 2017. They were not simply triangles of plastic; they were a stress-relief toy, a treatment for ADHD, an answer to smartphone addiction, a modern rosary – and the cause of moral panic, as teachers confiscated them as contraband. They were the stars of a growing anxiety economy.

Alongside products designed purely as medical aids, such as meditation apps, there is a thriving offshoot of lifestyle goods marketed through their anxiety-relieving qualities. Product innovation oriented around anxiety (encompassing stress, mood and sleep) spans nearly 30 different categories, including chocolate, yogurt, air fresheners, fabric conditioners and skincare. There is a company called Body Vibes which, for £30, will sell you a pack of anti-anxiety stickers that “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies”. Throw a squishy ball in the high street and you’re likely to hit something to cure your stress.

woman with stickers all over her face
 Face the facts: ‘Product innovation oriented around anxiety spans nearly 30 different categories, including chocolate, yogurt, air fresheners, fabric conditioners and even stickers.’ Photograph: Aleksandra Kingo/The Observer

If the 80s were the age of stress, this is the age of anxiety, with 30% of Britons experiencing an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. “The NHS Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, published in 2016, indicated that anxiety and depression affected about one in six people,” confirms consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, founder of youth mental health charity Stem4. This rise in anxiety coincides with a crisis in mental health care. And long waits for treatment often lead to more complications, and the problems multiply, a kind of silent mitosis, leading to even more pressure on the NHS as well as the patient. This has created a market for domestic anxiety cures that can be bought online, and fast.

“Because community services are cut,” says Krause, “there is little in the way of help for those who are unwell but don’t meet the threshold for acceptance to established services. And those who are severe can’t access help because specialist services are under-resourced. I am really keen on providing early intervention tools that are evidence-based and are therefore effective. Sadly there are a lot of products on the market that are not tested for their efficacy.”

Developed in the early 1990s by American engineer Catherine Hettinger, fidget spinners were designed as a calming tool, but when they went mainstream, marketers built on their medical promise simply by adjusting the aesthetics – much like adult colouring books, the publishing phenomenon of 2015 which sold millions due to their therapeutic mental health benefits; and more recently, the weighted blanket. In 2017 the sleep-health industry was worth between $30bn and $40bn. Mattresses were being marketed like iPads, iPads were swollen with sleep apps and the weighted blanket, a therapeutic aid, was redesigned as a chic lifestyle accessory.

A fleece Gravity Blanket costs £149 and is the colour of a Manchester sky. “Studies have shown that using a weighted blanket increases the level of serotonin and melatonin as well as reduces cortisol,” says its website. The company was founded by psychologist Joanna Goliszek. She ran a therapy centre in Poland, working with, she tells me, “an autistic boy with an urgent need for a weighted blanket. But most products available on the market were simply not affordable.” She started to manufacture them in her apartment and, in 2017, launched across Europe, reshifting their focus, the new customer being “everyone”. On Instagram, there are almost 32,000 posts with the #weightedblanket hashtag, including one from Tori Spelling, naked but for her blanket, explaining how it has changed her life by helping her sleep. Despite the fact that companies had been manufacturing them primarily for children with autism-spectrum disorders for many years (leading, as they went mainstream, to claims of appropriation), Timemagazine named “blankets that ease anxiety” one of the best inventions of 2018, quoting figures from a sleek US start-up (also called Gravity, no relation) which had already sold $18m worth of blankets.

In early 2018, in her New Yorker essay The Seductive Confinement of a Weighted Blanket in an Anxious Time, Jia Tolentino wrote that their success “arrived deep into a period when many Americans were beginning their emails with reflexive, panicked condolences about the news.” It was no coincidence that they had become a million-dollar business when much of the world felt like it needed to be put to bed. They had co-opted a familiar coping strategy (the feeling of being held) by repackaging a product that originated to assist a vulnerable community and selling it to people who felt anxious, ie almost everyone.

woman under weighted blanket
 Deep sleep: ‘This large flat beanbag gently forces you into a comforting stillness.’ Photograph: Aleksandra Kingo/The Observer

Mine arrived in a large box and, when I opened it, the blanket felt extremely cold. It took some effort to unfold it and then transport it to my bed – carrying the blanket felt not like carrying something objectively heavy like bricks or bags of tins, but like carrying a very light thing when you’re coming down with flu. I arranged myself under its grey soft weight, and then I fell asleep.

In the morning I woke in the same position. Unlike other anxiety aids, which encourage movement, fiddling, this large flat beanbag prevents movement. You are gently forced into a comforting stillness. Brushing my teeth the morning after a deep, deep sleep, I swilled the phrase “self-care” around my mouth.

In its earliest iteration it was used by doctors advising elderly patients on how to stay healthy at home, but by the late 1960s people used it more often in reference to the doctors themselves, having recognised that those in emotionally wearing professions could only look after others if they first looked after themselves. With the rise of the civil rights movement, self-care became political. Women and people of colour insisted that an autonomy over one’s body was necessary to fight racist and sexist systems, and indeed to survive. The phrase has since spread and mutated to include such diverse applications as gardening, antidepressants and peeling foot masks.

Today one of the places the phrase is most visible is in online articles about skincare routines, the ritual massaging in of oils and perfecting lotions, where the user is encouraged to concentrate less on how their skin looks tomorrow, but more on the mindful motions of looking after themselves.

“I know now that anxiety doesn’t really ever go away entirely,” wrote Olivia Muenter in an article called How My Beauty Routine Helps With My Anxiety, for Bustle, “but sometimes it shuts the hell up. And, for me, it’s often the quietest during my beauty routine.” She describes the action of moisturising as if it was meditation. Her skincare routine “pushes [her worries] away and what I’m left with is the simple act of doing something that makes me feel good”.

It’s at skincare that two arms of the anxiety economy cross, with the rise of CBD beauty. Owing to the increased interest in cannabis for medicinal use, the CBD (a non-psychoactive chemical compound found in marijuana) industry is expected to reach an estimated value of $22bn by 2022, with products including (but not limited to) teas, ice cream, vapes and hair conditioner. Last year Estée Lauder became one of the first mainstream beauty brands to release cannabis-infused products, alongside a growing list of smaller companies that included it in their brightening face creams, soaps, moisturising oils and mascaras, with the promise that CBD has anti-inflammatory properties. Though some claim it to be “stress-relieving”, simply by containing CBD their anxiety-relieving side effects are implicit.

In a mess: will mindfulness drawing really make you feel any better?
 In a mess: will mindfulness drawing really make you feel any better? Photograph: Aleksandra Kingo/The Observer

A cynic might point out that considering the pressure the cosmetic industry has maintained in pushing customers to achieve unrealistic beauty standards, their new insistence that their primary role is to reduce anxiety is ironic. Evidence of CBD’s efficacy in skincare is largely anecdotal and a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found widespread mislabelling of CBD products sold online. There is a similar issue in all areas of the CBD industry – complications around legalisation have made it hard for researchers to discover what it actually does. Small trials suggest that CBD could be effective in treating anxiety, but only in far larger doses than are usually offered. While a product can boast in its marketing materials that CBD reduces anxiety, there’s no proof that the product itself – whether oil or tea – does anything at all.

It’s something that bothers Dr Krause. Having seen how the NHS has had to “unofficially perform triage when it comes to crisis-level mental health conditions” – meaning that people with anxiety disorders are often pushed to the back of the queue – she’s aware of the brands profiting from this. “The market seems saturated. There are a number of companies that are trading on fake news to promote a whole range of products that are meant to help with mental health problems but without any evidence base to them. Given that we are dealing with a vulnerable population it is questionable how ethical producing these tools without evidence base and systematic review of efficacy is.”

The anxiety economy shows no signs of shrinking, with white noise machines, salt lamps and meditation headbands advertised alongside yoga selfies on Instagram. Aids for anxiety disorders in 2019 are branded like covetable scented candles – scrolling through the products, one starts to think of it as a small but universal ill like dry lips or shaving rash, and one just as easily treated. Which, it could be argued, threatens to normalise this mental illness; to recode it as a standard part of modern life, rather than something that requires medical attention. If one in six adults suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, that means there are five who have no need to be part of this niche market, and yet still, under the blanket-style weight of advertising, find their thumbs hovering over the button.

Is anxiety itself being commodified? This is a disorder that can stoke its own fire – worrying about anxiety can make it worse. Could it be that these products, rather than simply easing anxiety, are in fact propagating it, meaning healthy people self-diagnose an illness they don’t understand? And what about the causes? Is a £30 “anti-anxiety sticker” really just a plaster for a larger wound?

Psychoanalyst Michael Currie notes that we rarely deal with the causes of anxiety – job insecurity for example, or social isolation – when trying to treat it. Writing in The Monthly, he says: “Anxiety-as-disease is treated much like an infection, as if the symptoms were a bacterium that should be eradicated.” Buying a blanket is significantly easier than changing the world.

Closing down my emails to Dr Krause, I realise I’ve been absentmindedly squeezing the scared-cat squishy that sits on my desk. Does it work? Debatable. Does it matter? Also debatable. Ten years ago, a study was conducted with sufferers of social anxiety disorder. Sufferers were asked to take part in a stressful public speaking event, before being treated for eight weeks and then doing it again. Assessed by psychiatrists, 40% of the patients showed an improvement in their symptoms, despite all having been given placebos. The act of using a product that says it will make us feel better may actually make us feel better; for mild anxiety, the cure may not be in the squishy, but in the mind. Slowly, in my palm, the cat expands.

Stress busters

Anxiety has become a multi-million pound industry – but here are some ways to combat it for free

Take regular exercise Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming and cycling, encourage your brain to release serotonin, which can improve your mood. It also helps combat stress and release tension. Aim for at least two and a half hours a week.

Ditch the coffee It speeds up your heart rate and disrupts your sleep. If you’re tired, it’s harder to control anxious thoughts.

Contact support groups Go to anxietyuk.org.uk and mental health charity mind.org.uk – their services include talking therapies, crisis helplines, drop-in centres, training schemes, counselling and befriending.

Download a free app Catch It is a joint project launched by the universities of Liverpool and Manchester to help users better understand their moods; Elefriends is an online community from Mind and Verywellmind is an NHS mental health and wellbeing app designed to help with stress, anxiety and depression.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/mar/10/feel-better-now-the-rise-and-rise-of-the-anxiety-economy

Rodent leather and designer kidneys: art in the age of bio-revolution

Bespoke breasts, cloned frog meat and a gold gimp suit all feature in a remarkable new exhibition exploring the cutting edge of science

John A Douglas has a lot to thank medical science for – not least the new kidney he received in 2014 from an anonymous donor. “Since the operation, I’ve become a gym bunny, and lost 35 kilograms,” says the Australian artist over Skype. “But the main thing is I’d be dead otherwise.”

Still, the procedure left him with complicated feelings to process. “I was absolutely devastated after the surgery. At the beginning, you lose your sense of self. I’ve been surgically altered with the DNA and tissue of another person. So in a sense I’m a post-human whose death has been deferred at the cost of lifelong compliance programmes of medication, diet and fitness. My body will be monitored and observed for the rest of my life. In a sense it’s not my body any more – it’s been successfully invaded.”

Douglas isn’t complaining. But he’s keen to take a critical perspective on what has happened to his body since he got the new organ. His latest video and performance piece, Circles of Fire, traces his emotional and physical journey. It features in Spare Parts, a new exhibition at King’s College London’s Science Gallery that uses the work of artists and designers to explore the emotional aspects of living with replacement organs or limbs, as well as the hopes that tissue engineering might help us grow new body parts. It’s an extraordinary show at the cutting edge of science, which also embraces art, ethics, craft and even how we might use compost to create living cells.

A still from John A Douglas’s video Circles of Fire.
 A still from John A Douglas’s video Circles of Fire. Photograph: Gotaro Uematsu/courtesy the artist and Performance Space

The story of Douglas’s contribution to the show starts in 2004, when he went partially blind in one eye – a symptom of the renal disease that had destroyed between 60-70% of a kidney. That disease was the result of the former heroin addict sharing dirty needles from which he contracted hepatitis C. At the time, he was finishing a master’s degree in fine art. What he decided to do thereafter was to make visible the hidden world of the chronically ill.

“I have a chronic illness but it’s not clear to the world that I do,” he says. “I want to make myself visible. And in the same way I want to make visible a lot of things we choose to erase – illness and death being the leading ones.”

So he started expressing his experiences as a patient – “which is often painful or just boring, but I try to make them moving and poetic”. In 2013, for instance, he put on a 10-hour performance while connected to a peritoneal dialysis machine and wearing a metallic-gold skin suit that heightened the show’s very odd nature. “I call it my gimp suit,” he says.

The suit features in other works, such as those that use volcanic and fiery images (including those taken of Turkmenistan’s “Doorway to Hell”) to convey the existential struggles of recovery.

Human cells growing off custom electrospun scaffold.
 Human cells growing off custom electrospun scaffold, by Svenja Kratz. Photograph: Dietmar Hutmacher/Centre for Regenerative Medicine, QUT Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation

I ask Spare Parts curator Stéphanie Delcroix what the point of her show is. “We’re trying to challenge preconceptions about repairing the human body,” she says. “Quite a lot of it is tongue in cheek, even as it shows off cutting-edge science and our experiences of transplants and tissue engineering. We hope it will be appealing to children and non-scientists.”

She cites two pieces made by artist Svenja Kratz for the exhibition. Monument to Immortality is a live video feed of the cells growing in the gallery and a 3D-printed structure created by translating movement of cells into a sculptural form. The Ghost Writer is a machine that uses a programmed neural network to produce a narrative based on an original text created by Kratz about the prospect of separating the mind from the body and being resurrected as an artificial entity. During the show’s run, it will rewrite the original story.

“They’re deconstructing the idea that tech companies tomorrow will be able to download someone’s consciousness,” says Delcroix. “The artists and designers here are picking through the hype.”

Many of the artists in Spare Parts are doing something else, too – such as imagining a future in which we not only grow organs but also grow clothing materials rather than take them from animals. A few years ago, London-based textile designer Amy Congdon did a project for her master’s degree called Biological Atelier. “It was a speculative design project looking at a potential future for haute couture and fashion, where we might grow luxury and bespoke materials,” she says. In 2080, she imagined, fashionistas might be wearing ethically grown ivory bracelets or sustainable fur jackets whose material would be sourced harmlessly from several different species, including humans.

Where did these ideas come from? “I started from a textile background, learning to knit and do embroidery. Then a tutor showed me a magazine article about how all the craft skills I’d been learning could be used to grow human tissues.” She was especially captivated by artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, who had been working on what they called “victimless leather”, coating biodegradable polymer with mouse cells to form connective tissue and topping it up with human bone cells to make a stronger skin layer.

Tissue-engineered textiles by Amy Congdon.
 Semi-living couture … tissue-engineered textiles by Amy Congdon. Photograph: Ann-Kristin Abel

The first victimless leather jacket they made, in 2004, was two inches high and 1.4 inches wide. It would just fit a mouse. But it was revolutionary to Congdon, who travelled to the SymbioticA research laboratory at the University of Western Australia to study with them. “They had this incredible idea that, rather than killing an animal, you’d take cells, expand them in the lab and use that to produce the leather.” This semi-living couture came with a moral lesson. “People were disturbed by the ethics of using living cells to grow living fabric,” Zurr told Wired magazine, “while the use of leather obtained from animals seems to be accepted without any concern for the wellbeing of the animals.”

The cells used in their leather jacket came from a mouse who lived in the 1970s. Since then, Catts and Zurr have taken cells from a frog and grown them into something edible, displaying it next to the still-living frog. The result, Disembodied Cuisine, suggested one way we could make food from animals without killing them.

Big Heart Data, 2018, by Salomé Bazin, produces digital and 3D-printed models of the heart to assist surgeons.
 Speculative project Big Heart Data, 2018, by Salomé Bazin, produces digital and 3D-printed models of the heart. Photograph: Gareth McKee/courtesy Cellule

After working alongside Catts and Zurr (whose Compostcubator 2.0 is exhibited in the Spare Parts show), Congdon returned to London where she is now working with scientists at the tissue engineering and biophotonics department at King’s, using her knowledge of textiles to research the making of couture biological body parts. Her knitting and embroidery skills have turned out to be surprisingly useful.

“One of the key areas of research is the design and development of scaffolds to support cell growth,” Congdon explains. “You need these scaffolds to give cells an architecture on which to grow. And textile disciplines like the ones I’ve learned help create scaffolds. They mimic natural structures in the body, creating bespoke architectures that are often difficult, or impossible, to achieve in other mediums.”

For the Spare Parts show, Congdon has created an installation called Crafting the Body, which explores some of the research she’s doing for her PhD into the making of designer body parts. But why would we want haute couture organs or limbs? “What if they could be beautiful?” Congdon says. “People spend so much time and money getting a beautiful bespoke suit. Why not something for their body or their health? Think of how people will wear fabulous lingerie that no one else ever sees. A kind of gift to yourself. How about if your body needs repairing – say you need breast reconstructive surgery – you do not have a utilitarian replacement, but a bespoke haute couture one, the equivalent of a monogrammed handkerchief? It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that this kind of couture will be developed in the not too distant future.”

The Spare Parts exhibition shows that it is artists and designers like Congdon, as much as scientists and medics, who are imagining and perhaps realising such futures. “I only did science up to GCSE, so it’s been wonderful and completely unexpected that I can get my hands dirty in the lab,” says Congdon. “I’m fascinated by blurring the boundaries between science and design, between medicine and art. It’s like seeing a surgeon as a mix between scientist and artist. Which it should be. Leonardo would laugh at you for supposing they’re different.”

It’s not too fanciful to imagine that in the future we will grow designer livers and limbs and jewellery from living animals’ cells. It’s possible, too, that when someone like John Douglas needs a new kidney, it won’t be something donated anonymously, but rather one grown – and even designed as a thing of beauty.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/20/artists-biology-science-spare-parts-exhibition-bio-revolution

The Hypervolt massager: it’s as if I’ve grasped an electric fence and can’t let go

It pumps out 3,200 percussions a minute to help your muscles recover after exercise. And it does the trick – if you like feeling like a cut of meat being tenderised

The words “personal massaging device” make one spontaneously vibrate with the effort of suppressing a thousand schoolboy jokes, but let’s pretend we are better than that. The Hypervolt, a name that positively screams “fragile masculinity”, is the latest product from Hyperice, a company that usually specialises in foam rollers and ice compression packs with a name that is weirdly reminiscent of Müllerice.

The Hypervolt (£374.99, hyperice.co.uk) looks sci-fi and fun; like Barbarella’s gun. It doesn’t want to be fun, though; it wants to speed up muscle recovery after intense exercise, using percussion therapy. This has nothing to do with nervously air-drumming in a doctor’s waiting room, while you sit expecting the results of your blood test, and this review is also nothing to do with that, so stop worrying and get it together, man. Percussion therapy involves vibrating muscles at high speed, to stretch them out after the tightening effects of exercise, as well as loosen the connective tissues surrounding them. It is not intended for lazy people such as me, who rarely exercise and store all tension in their thoughts. (What if the doctor says I’m not lazy – that there’s actually something wrong with me? Would that be better or worse? Immaterial. Focus.)

Other at-home percussion massagers are available, notably the Theragun and TimTam, the latter of which is not to be confused with an Australian version of the Penguin chocolate snack. In action, however, those devices sound like the power tools they are, with decibel levels approaching Brian Blessed at a waxing salon. The Hypervolt plays its ace immediately. Turning it on, ramping up the three speed settings, there is a superb dampening of sound in the soft-touch handle. It is perfectly comfortable to hold and, even on its highest setting, has only slightly more volume coming out of it than a toothbrush. (An electric one, obviously.)

Using the Hyervolt on a bicep
 The Hypervolt can target sore muscles while bypassing the pain of manipulation by human hands. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Crucially, there is no trade off in power. Even purring away on the lowest setting, it hammers 2,000 times a minute, making it five times more effective than François Truffaut’s autobiographical film, The 400 Blows. When it is applied to a bicep on its most powerful setting, it is like I have grasped an electric fence and can’t let go. Applied to my neck on the same setting – not advised – it shakes my eyes, like watching the film Cloverfield, if less traumatic. This is a key selling point of percussion therapy: the desensitising effect of being pummelled at high speed means sore muscles can be targeted, while bypassing the pain of manipulation by human hands. Strangely, it checks out.

As the device thuds back and forth into my flesh in a blur, I can feel deep tissues being rapidly pulsed, while at the surface there is a sort of numbness, as if my nerves don’t understand what the hell is going on, and can’t react. It is the physiotherapy equivalent of waterboarding. Perhaps more accurately, I feel like a cut of cheap meat being tenderised.

There are four attachments: a spongy ball, a bullet, a flat coin and a fork, which apply different surface pressures. Sticking the fork in me, I am soon done. My calves feel tired but loose, like a couple of shanks ready for the pot. I try other areas with the ball, then the bullet, noting how easy it is to become estranged from one’s own body. I start to lose recognition of the familiar shoulder, chest or thigh. Instead, I see my boneless chuck, my beef cheek, my brisket. I steer clear of the tenderloin, because honestly, this thing is a velvet jackhammer. And it’s one that runs for hours with no palpable decrease in battery.

Is there a happy ending? Not exactly. I don’t exercise at the kind of intensity that requires athletic recovery gadgets, especially not at this price. But I am aware there are people who do. This thing definitely isn’t designed for pleasure, but it’s no swizz either. Hypervolt supplies a lot of bang for your buck. The fact remains that this gun isn’t aimed at me, and for that, I am grateful.

Highlight

The highest setting throws out 3,200 percusses a minute, which is fewer cusses than that time I stepped on Lego, but nonetheless impressive.

Wellness or hellness?

Wellness. It is very pricey, though – I’d trade it for 400 Müllerices. 4/5

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/11/hypervolt-massager-as-if-grasped-electric-fence