MY FIRST THOUGHT every morning is: I'm still here! That sounds dramatic, I know, but I was lecturing at the New Delhi Tissue Research Centre near where the bomb went off, and one of my friends was badly injured. It's a strange feeling. Every day feels like a kind of bonus.
I've been waking up at 3.45am for the past few months - I'd started setting my alarm earlier anyway to beat the mid-morning heat, and now my body clock seems to have adjusted. I'll scan the news online, grab some cereal, dress the kids and leave for work via the apartments of the four others in my car-share. Sometimes I resent having to chauffeur them around, but I shouldn't complain - it's a luxury, and far safer than the Eurorail.
By 6am I'm at the institute. In some ways it's an old-fashioned kind of place - everyone has their own desk, some people still type by hand. I drop the boys off at the nursery first, then switch on to dictate any urgent communication, read my e-mail and settle down to study the next batch of slides.
The pace of work hasn't changed much since I started in the late 1970s. Wednesday afternoons I run a clinic for women who have lost breasts, usually through cancer. When we made the breakthrough, two years ago, I remember thinking: we've arrived. I also recall the look on our first patient's face when she came back, a month after the operation, proudly showing off her new chest. Of course, you're always trying to refine the procedure.
By 10am I'm ravenous. Lunch in the shady canteen is a pleasure, not for the food, which is nutritious but dull, but for a breath of cool air and the chance to catch up with colleagues around the world. There's a team in Brazil doing the same kind of work and we'll carefully swap anecdotes while trying not to give too much away - you never know who's tapping into your conversation.
Here in London, we took the Vacanti method as our starting point, using tissue grown in solution and a scaffold made from organic coral to form the breast's basic structure. The coral is gradually absorbed by the body and there are no known side-effects. People still think of Charles Vacanti as the man who transplanted a human ear onto a mouse - and I suppose I'll always be the woman who reinvented breasts, no matter what else I do.
Growing neural tissue in culture is tricky, to put it mildly. We take cells from the patient, put them in a solution of calcium alginate (which is extracted from seaweed) and add a genetic trigger to encourage them to multiply. With any transplant there's always a danger of infection, or rejection by the body - but with tissue from the patient's own cells there's a 60% chance that it will take. The hard part is controlling the cells' growth once they are in situ. Some of our early breasts went a bit haywire after the first few weeks - distorting or growing too large, which caused a lot of distress all round, as you can imagine. We're developing a new enzyme from the leaves of the kinjabi tree, which acts as a growth inhibitor, but we haven't got it 100% right yet.
Our biggest problem now is that the coral is largely gone, so the procedure is becoming incredibly costly. And resources tend to be allocated to organ projects - hearts, lungs, bladders. We've been developing artificial substitutes, but since the global environment legislation it's become harder to find backers for developments deemed non-essential for survival. I continue to fight our corner... it's a struggle but it's worth it.
I finish work at about 3.30, pick up the boys and head for home. There's no way of beating the rush hour but we listen to the communications on the way home, so it's not wasted time. I tell them they're never too young to learn about politics, but they just laugh at me. They've started asking who their father is and I'm trying to work out how to explain about frozen sperm.
We eat dinner at about five and I put them to bed an hour or so later. I'm not the most tolerant of people and I have to admit that it's a relief when they fall asleep. Then I climb up into my own bed, switch on the monitor and read scientific journals for a while, or watch a movie. I fall asleep easily, and dream about huge coral reefs like the ones in old documentaries. It's a good life, really. I'm quite grateful for it.
Interview by Kathy Brewis
Portrait by Daniel Mackie
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