At first, they look like distant nebulae captured by the Hubble Space Telescope or shots of deep-sea creatures swirling in the dark.
But peer closer into the illuminated photographs that line the 8th floor of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute's new Scott Bieler Clinical Sciences Center, and you can see minute cell structures glowing neon blue, yellow and red.
The cells and surrounding tissues have been injected with naturally fluorescent proteins borrowed from jellyfish, which are used to track the how cancer grows and spreads on the cellular level.
They also produce astounding visual compositions, which amplify the minuscule components of cellular biology into cosmic abstractions of infinite complexity. Those abstract images are both awe-inspiring and frightening, showcasing the natural beauty of human biology but also the potential for parts of that biology to go haywire.
The idea the pioneering work of Roswell Park cellular biologists could serve a dual function as art came from Roswell Park doctors Kenneth Gross and Heinz Baumann from the center's department of molecular and cellular biology.
They've been working with these injected proteins for years, trying to devise new and more accurate methods to determine which cells have the potential to turn cancerous and which are likely to move throughout the body.
Though their work is directed at tracing the movement and behavior of individual tumor cells, Baumann said, the process of tracking that movement requires an artistic disposition.
"You are an artist, and you have a palette in your hand with eight different colors and you just start painting," Baumann said. "You can now get shades of colors, which is fairly unusual. That’s because a cell has not yet made up its mind which color it will be next."
The process of "painting" tumor cells and their surrounding tissues with fluorescent proteins can help to tell a clearer story about how certain cancers behave on the cellular level -- an important component in developing new treatments.
"We want to be able to track what an individual cell is doing," Gross said. "We can deduce certain things we see very rapidly by just following how those colors distribute.
One of the more interesting things we can find is that, in a case where a cell might throw off a metastatic tumor, we can tell the cell that caused the primary tumor because it’s color-coded."
As for the new installation of the images in a hallway where physicians and scientists' often interact, they serve as a reminder about the importance of the work Roswell scientists are doing.
"They tell stories. They’re scientific stories, but it adds an aeshteic element to a hallway that people walk through every day," Gross said. Baumann agreed, noting that the work he and his fellow molecular biologists perform, including these new artworks, is directed at one thing:
"The goal," he said, "is to improve our understanding of the cancer."
More images from the project: