Cancer researcher’s art is in the DNA
Throughout the centuries, the human form has been a favorite subject for various painters, sketcher and sculptors.
Bryan Welm, associate professor at the University of Utah’s department of surgery and a breast cancer investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, creates art inspired by a part of the human body that is only seen through microscopes – the nucleosome.
Nucleosomes store people’s DNA in tight packages, said Welm, a Summit Park resident.
“Every cell in your body has two meters of DNA, and if you took the DNA of all the cells in one person’s body and linked them end to end and stretched that into one strand, it would reach to Pluto and back,” Welm said. “So the nucleosome holds the DNA into compact forms.”
It also tells the body when it needs to make more cells by regulating its genes, the researcher said.
“Cancer is caused by abnormalities on how a gene is turned on and off,” Welm said.
A year ago, Welm was inspired to create a metal sculpture of a double helix.
“I would look at the structure and see how I could twist and bend metal, so, I just tried it,” he said.
His first piece turned out well, but was inaccurate.
“There were some problems with the distances between some of the strands,” he said. “So, I rebuilt it, and eventually ended up making five sculptures that were more accurate.”
After his success with the helixes, Welm got word that Karolin Luger, the researcher who identified the nucleosome, liked his sculptures.
“I thought maybe I should make a nucleosome and give it to her,” he said. “I pulled up a picture and immediately thought it would be impossible for me to do.”
A few days later, Welm opened the image again.
“I really looked at it and realized it was basically made of pieces,” he said. “So I decided to make the pieces and then assemble it.”
Welm worked on the sculpture at a one-to-50 million scale for 10 months, and he said the most challenging aspect of the project was accuracy.
“I had to measure how big the gaps were between the DNA strands and proteins were, so I could be as precise as I could be,” he said. “The images I use for models come from the National Center of Biotechnology Information database, and I can twist the image around and see the different dimensions.”
Welm worked on creating the DNA strands and the protein cores, which included histone tails that resemble streamers.
“I use what is called mild steel in these sculptures,” he said. “I get them from Wasatch Steel and Home Depot, and I also use a lot of recycled materials from various locations.”
Working on the sculpture took Welm out of his day-to-day stresses.
“I loved heating the metal and feeling it become pliable,” he said. “I would spend a whole day bending rods. Then I will cut them down to size.”
Welm also enjoyed welding the parts together.
“It was great to see the piece grow from a pile of metal on a table into a protein structure,” he said.
While Welm made sure the structure itself was accurate, he took some liberties with the colors and textures.
“There are really no colors in proteins, so I used some patinas, paints and chemical reactions to bring up different colors in the metals,” he said. “In regards of texture, some of the parts are polished while others are distressed.”
Welm is currently working on two more nucleosome sculptures.
He will give one to his colleague Brad Cairns, a fellow researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
“Brad actually studies this protein, and he’s been coming to my house every week to talk about the structure helps me put it together,” Welm said. “So one of these will stay here and be dedicated to him and his work.”
Welm will give the other to New England Biolabs in Massachusetts.
“They are sponsoring this project,” Welm said. “They are paying for the three sculptures as a donation to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.”
Welm found his love for metalwork while taking a class with his 15-year-old daughter, Ella, at the Kimball Art Center.
“I am an awful artist, but when we did it, I had a blast,” Welm said. “From then on, I have been committed to it.”
The first pieces Welm built were abstract panels that he mounted above his fireplace and walls.
“Because I’m a scientist, I then thought it would be cool to make protein structures,” he said. “When you think about it, those things actually exist in each one of our cells right now, and while it took me 10 months to put one of those together, your cells take only a couple of seconds to build it.”
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