Meet Nottingham Trent's very own 'Dr Frankenstein' who creates eerily accurate human body parts

A sign on the door of Room 107 reads: "If you are easily disturbed, please do not enter"
Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab
Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab

When the cleaner found the corpse it was spread out and supine, chest cavity torn open and gaping, organs exposed, lifeless eyes glaring into the ceiling. 

Clearly a hideous murder had occurred in the bowels of Nottingham Trent University overnight, and these were the grizzly remains.

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Horrified, the cleaner ran to get help. The gruesome sight was just too much.

It must have proved some consolation to find out, later that panicked morning, that this wasn’t a real corpse, but an astonishingly detailed, masterfully designed, and built synthetic. 

But the shock was real. The traumatised cleaner had to take three months off to get over it.

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It’s a strange tribute to the astonishing work that goes on in the prosaic-sounding Flexure Composites Research Laboratory, in room 107 of the Bonington Building of NTU. 

Yet venture behind that door – which, since the incident with the cleaner, now bears the warning, “If you are easily disturbed, please do not enter” – and what you’ll find is anything but mundane.

Inside that small, tucked away lab the squeamish will find material for future nightmares: staring eyeballs, a severed aorta, a disjointed mandible, a foetus in a jar; virtually every organ in your body is casually scattered on a shelf in this little lab. And they have the power to make more.

The lab is full of shelves that are covered with body parts from teeth to toes The lab is full of shelves that are covered with body parts from teeth to toes
The lab is full of shelves that are covered with body parts from teeth to toes

Arm by name, arm by nature?

That’s the job of Richard Arm, research fellow in the School of Art & Design, who oversees the world-leading modelling work that goes on in Room 107. 

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Yes, there are jokes around campus about Arm and his team. “I’ve been called Dr Frankenstein before,” he tells me, when I pay a visit. “I’ve got a bit of a reputation of being a bit of an oddball in the university.”

But the work the team is engaged with is serious, and, now in its 10th year, is having a serious impact on the world of medicine.

Using some of the most advanced equipment anywhere in the world, backed up by vastly detailed digital data yielded from real CT and MRI scans, the synthetics produced right here in Nottingham are the highest-standard of their kind anywhere in the world.

Their purpose? To help in the training of surgeons and medical students without the need for a cadaver, and without the terrible split-second pressure of learning while observing life-saving operations on real, critically wounded patients.

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What started as an initiative in 2014 to assist surgeons and battlefield trauma trainers, has developed into arguably the world’s leading centre for the production of synthetic organs for a wide range of medical uses. 

The frighteningly realistic replica body parts are helping to train future surgeons The frighteningly realistic replica body parts are helping to train future surgeons
The frighteningly realistic replica body parts are helping to train future surgeons

Arm says: “The lessons the military learned on the battlefield over the 10 years or so of combat medicine, they wanted to transfer that and not lose them. It translates through to emergency trauma in civilian medicine, so road traffic accidents, stabbings, gunshots, that kind of thing. 

“Especially with chest trauma in particular it’s difficult because the organs are enclosed inside the rib cage which is quite difficult to get to, so access to that is quite tricky to teach without going to cadaver lab to learn on dead bodies, or being there at the time of the incident. 

“At the time I was a senior technician making life casts and playing with 3D printing and anatomy. I’d done a couple of things for surgeons in the past, making implantables to go into hearts.

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“When we started doing the work it quickly grew from ‘We need a heart and lungs’ to ‘but we need a rib cage to sit it in, we need to get to the airways to intubate a patient, so we need a head and neck’. It became an entire body in the end.”

Near-perfect reproductions

The laboratory shelves are stacked with frighteningly realistic body parts The laboratory shelves are stacked with frighteningly realistic body parts
The laboratory shelves are stacked with frighteningly realistic body parts

And because of the importance of getting surgical training absolutely right, the organs must be near-perfect reproductions. Right down to the look, weight, and ‘feel’. 

There were people working in the field of ‘medical modelling’ before Richard Arm, then a technician, first started his research, after a surgeon asked about the potential of 3D printing for that purpose. 

The limitation back then, he says - and where NTU has broken vital ground - was in the data being used to supply the 3D printer. 

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“It’s gone from basic external anatomy of the heart and lungs and vascular system,” says Arm, “through to detailed internal anatomy. Now we have the valves, each blood vessel, all of the connective tissues, the trachea, the liver, the lungs, the heart, the vascular system of the lungs.

“That’s why we use CT, which sets our work apart from others. Current medical models usually use artistic interpretation of anatomy.”

And that is where the placement of the lab within NTU becomes so vital. 

Were the team working in isolation, or out in the private sector, it would take a huge and costly effort to pull together the many strands of expertise required to deliver models to this level. At NTU, the world-class multi-disciplinary genius is already there, within the School of Art and Design.

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“If a surgeon or medical team get hold of a 3D printer they’ll print an anatomical model straight from the data,” says Arm. “But because we’ve got material expertise, we’ve got design expertise, we can leapfrog quite acrobatically between the disciplines we need to. That’s one of the main benefits of being within the School of Art and Design. 

“There’s nobody else in the world doing quite what we’re doing.”

Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab
Richard Arm marvels at a replica heart in the NTU lab

I have never held a human heart in my hands. So I may not be the best judge. 

But the organs being produced here look, and feel, unnervingly real. And evidently, they are, not just to lay eyes, but to the exacting standards demanded by thoracic surgeons and those training the medics of the future.

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Not to mention, the judges of renowned scientific and medical awards panels, and the editors of esteemed scientific journals and papers worldwide.

The team has been recognised by numerous august bodies, including the Royal College of Surgeons - which awarded Arm the Technology Showcase prize in 2017 – and the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, whose plaque in recognition for his services to tri-service medical education is mounted proudly on the office wall.

Richard Arm leads the project, but a major part of what makes the results world-class is down to the quality of the equipment. 

The brains behind the operation

The printer in the lab said to be the fastest 3D printer in the world, was designed and built by Lincolnshire-based company Construct3D. But behind the brand name is a remarkable story of, in the family company’s own words, “A young man and his bedroom workshop”.

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That young man is Jacob Lord: the brains behind the world-class, award-winning printer that sits in Room 107.

And through a nice journalistic fluke, Jacob, and his mum, are in the lab when I visit.

It all began when his parents gave him a 3D printer on his 18th birthday, eight years ago. Now Jacob designs and builds the world-leading equipment, while his devoted mum and financial backer Thérèse takes care of the vital admin and business side – “all the horrible stuff that Jacob doesn’t like doing,” she tells me.

The creations in this laboratory are the stuff of nightmares The creations in this laboratory are the stuff of nightmares
The creations in this laboratory are the stuff of nightmares

On his work with NTU, Jacob says: “It’s all about trying to build the best industrial machinery without having the six-figure price tag. Globally we are literally a world leader. 

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“A lot of what we found during the development process is that industrial machines suck. If you design it correctly the first time it’ll just work.”

Of course, the project also has its critics. There are those who argue that you can never truly learn to perform thoracic surgery on a model, however life-like it is. 

“You’ll always have the critic who’ll say you can never replace a cadaver,” he says. “We’re not trying to replace a cadaver. We’re trying to widen participation.

“40% of the medical schools in the UK don’t have a tissue license. So how do they learn how to operate on people? How do they learn about anatomy? They can’t. It’s very limited.” 

The fastest 3D printer in the world The fastest 3D printer in the world
The fastest 3D printer in the world
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And ultimately the proof of the project’s enormous benefit to medicine sits on the wall of Room 107, in the form of the many awards and recognitions Arm and the team have received over the past decade.

He admits that there is huge commercial potential in the project if he or the university were interested. But that’s not what drives them to keep leading the field. 

“It isn’t about making loads of money and charging loads of money for top-of-the-range products,” he says. “We could. But what we’re focused on is making an impact and having a meaningful output for our research.

“We want to make an impact in society. That’s the real focus of the work.”