As the studio’s lasers hit the legs of Mark Lythgoe’s white trousers, the light appears to pass right through them: to those of us watching, it’s as though his flesh has become insubstantial. It’s an arresting image, and Lythgoe is clearly delighted by it. He tilts his head so that it parts the rays, then sticks his finger into the path of a red laser beam so that it lights up like ET’s. A playful gesture, but also the mark of a scientist: he wants to see what’s going on.
The desire to break new ground and to understand are the twin forces behind almost everything Lythgoe does. Before he was a scientist—before he failed his A-levels and worked as a dancer and attack-dog trainer—he was a climber. “That moment when you stand on a point of the Earth where no one has stood before, and see a view that no one has ever seen—that’s magic,” he says. “It’s the same in my work. When you see an image that has never been seen before, it’s the most special moment in life.”
As founder and director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI) at University College London, Lythgoe designs and builds scanners that (unlike lasers) can reveal the inner workings of the body. It was the need to see things in order to understand them that led him down this path. “Take humans. We start as eight cells that grow and divide to make billions. But how does that happen? That’s why you create an imaging technique that can see those cells, can see them grow, multiply, divide and change. You can see them cajoling each other, pushing and jostling to create form. That’s when things become real for me.”
The same techniques can be employed to understand diseases. Recently, Lythgoe’s lab used 3D magnetic-resonance imaging on mouse embryos the size of a thumbnail. “You can look into their hearts, which are the size of a pinhead, and find holes the size of a hair,” he says. “It’s helped to identify the genes that lead to hole-in-the-heart babies.”
His latest project—which he has named, excitedly, Invisible Man—involves using light to image the body. “We knew how to make cells light up by inserting luminous genes taken from jellyfish. The problem was that we couldn’t see them, as it’s very difficult to get light into and out of the body.” The solution was to make the body invisible—rather like that of a jellyfish. They’ve managed to do this, though so far only in dead tissue outside the body, by injecting into it a thick sugary solution with the same refractive index.
“Then we can see the genes switching on, the cells lighting up. We can see individual cellular events happening inside the tissues, and by this, can start to understand the relationship between genes and disease. If we can see tagged genes lighting up in a tumour, for example, we could see if they were responsible for its growth.” If they can make the technique work in living tissue—and Lythgoe is confident they will—those coffin-like MRI machines could be consigned to the hospital scrapyard.
Lythgoe is a natural showman who has wowed audiences with a live brain scan at Cheltenham Science Festival, where he has been co-director for the past six years. He needs little excuse to dress up. “I remember getting ready for a night out in Manchester. I was wearing my dad’s wedding suit and gold chain, and my Mum’s pearl beads and diamond brooch. My dad caught me and said: ‘If you go out like that, you’re never coming back.’”
He did, though, and, 35 years later, clothes are still important to him. We put him in this unstructured white cotton suit from the most cerebral of designers, Ann Demeulemeester. It might be less showy than Lythgoe’s favourite stripy Ozwald Boateng, but it still trips the light fantastic.
Cheltenham Science Festival June 3rd-8th; cheltenhamfestivals.com/science
White woven cotton suit, £735, by Ann Demeulemeester at Mr Porter; monochrome printed T-shirt, £180, by Christopher Kane at The Corner; white calf-leather “Teddy” brogues with blue Vibram soles, £250, by Grenson; “Strip” titanium glasses with light-adaptive Transitions lenses, from £415 depending on prescription, by Lindberg; marine blue “The Unit” watch with integral thermometer, £110, by Nixon.