In her new book, Clodagh Finn looks at the history of Ireland through the lives of the women who shaped it from the Stone Age right up to the present day.
In this edited extract, she tells the story of Jemma Redmond, a biotechnologist who 3D-printed human tissue.
She even believed she could 3D-print herself a womb when she found out she couldn’t have children Jemma Redmond, ground-breaking biotechnologist who printed living tissue (1978-2016).
Jemma Redmond had a vision. She believed she could find a way to 3D print human organs so that she could heal herself – along with millions of others facing a range of health issues from infertility to organ failure.
It sounds like science-fiction. She said so herself but, crucially, she added the qualifier: It’s ‘sci-fi – for now’.
In her lifetime, she made more progress than anybody thought possible. She designed and developed a bioprinter that could 3D print cells and keep them alive.
It was pioneering work that attracted global attention.
And she wasn’t going to stop there. She believed it was possible not only to print human organs for transplant but to improve on nature’s design, essentially making stronger more resilient human beings.
She saw health as an engineering problem and she believed 3D printing could deliver far-reaching medical solutions to human problems.
In part, she was looking for a solution to her own medical problem. When she found out she was infertile, she wanted to ‘fix it’ and set about finding a way to 3D print ovaries and a uterus.
As she explained in an interview in 2015: “There are a number of reasons I got into the field, but?—?I found out I couldn’t have children… I was trying to find solutions to the problem.
"I was trying to see if I could actually fix things or re-generate tissue. And that’s kind of how I got into bioprinting. I came across this field, and it was like ‘Wow, you can actually grow tissue.’”
She started to build early prototypes at her own kitchen table using everyday appliances; a cooker, a heater, an air compressor from a car, anything that was to hand.
When things got too hot in the kitchen – which they did – she used the extractor hood to get rid of the fumes. “It was quite dangerous, actually,” she said. “It was pretty wacky.”
There was nothing new in that, though, as she had always been “dabbling with stuff” growing up in Tallaght, Dublin.
She was born on March 16 1978, the eldest of Lorraine and Christy Cahill’s three children. Her first brother Bryan was born in 1981, followed by Philip in 1984.
Jemma took her grandmother’s surname ‘Redmond’ as they were particularly close.
As a child, she was always making things and taking things apart to see how they worked.
But more than that, when she went to put them together again she wanted to see how she might improve the design.
She also had a deep interest in health and when she heard that a neighbour had cancer, she said she would go about finding a cure, Lorraine says.
“She had a brilliant mind,” her father Christy says. And it was constantly whirring, her mother chips in.
“Her mind was going 20 to the dozen. She never stopped. She’d forget to eat; she’d be sitting at her laptop and fall asleep over it and then she’d wake up and start working again.”
There was always time for a good pun, though. Jemma, her dad and brother Philip were committed punsters, turning mealtimes into quick-witted bantering sessions.
Her mother throws her eyes up to heaven at the thought of it but smiles when recalling her daughter’s dry sense of humour.
But there was a more serious side too. She spoke and wrote often about the difficulties of being born intersex, or to quote the Transgender Equality Network Ireland definition, being born with characteristics that do not strictly belong to male or female categories.
Jemma Redmond, who identified as a woman, was more straightforward. She simply said: “I have some differences in my body.”
She posted about street harassment; being verbally abused, taunted, touched, even punched.
Some people passed remarks; thoughtless comments based on a kneejerk reaction to subtle physical differences.
It cut Jemma to the quick, her parents recall now, with deep sadness.
There was, at least, an upside to those differences – they helped her to refine her vision of 3D-printing human organs and go a long way towards making them a reality.
In 2015, she set up her own bioprinting company, Ourobotics. Dr Tony Herbert, CEO of Irish Precision Optics, was sufficiently impressed by her as a scientist and an entrepreneur to offer her laboratory space as part of an incubator unit in Cork city.
Jemma’s company was one of five operating out of Summerhill north in Cork city.
She jumped at the opportunity and when she moved in, she posted on Twitter; “It’s alive!
“Well not quite… it’s my lab. Mine!”
She posted regularly on social media, everything from her favoured puns to developments in bioprinting and comments on discrimination.
When she died suddenly, aged just thirty- eight, her friends kept her Facebook page open as a tribute to a woman who believed that she could make the impossible happen.
And she did, as she noted with an admirable measure of glee in November 2015: “Someone told me something couldn’t be done… but lateral thinking and taking apart software has worked again. Hooray for me!”
Shortly after that, Duncan Turner, a general partner at SOSV, gave her the opportunity to take part in the HAX accelerator programme to work on a prototype 3D bioprinter in Shenzhen, China.
Bill Liao, another general partner at SOSV, the venture capital firm that runs the programme, remembers Jemma as an intellectual and visionary who wanted to make a real difference in the world.
“She saw health as an engineering problem, which honestly it is. A lot of health care she saw as little better than voodoo or butchery as opposed to well-refined engineering.
"She was very smart and very technically capable and she had ambitions to print a working set of ovaries and a womb.”
Over four intense months in China, Jemma and her team produced a number of prototypes before developing a 10-material bio-printer, the first of its kind.
Revolution, as she called the printer, was capable of printing complex tissues and keeping them alive. And it was, literally, revolutionary.
It was also very heavy – and fragile – so she and her colleagues travelled with it, dragging it through a number of international airports before finally touching down in San Francisco to give a demonstration on how it worked.
Then, as Jemma light-heartedly told a conference some time later, this happened: “We had the machine on top of the table for demo day and I was so exhausted that I leaned back on the table and the table tilted and the machine fell on the floor and smashed to pieces and the room went silent.
"We continued on… I just kicked the machine under the table… it was grand. We came back to Cork and built another machine and went a bit further.”
She believed she could print organs that could be ready for transplant in three months. And she could do so for a fraction of the cost that it takes to procure them at the moment.
Jemma Redmond’s vision wasn’t sci-fi any more. She was talking to professionals all over the world about printing organs and limbs.
“There is a literal ‘arms’ race going on,” she said with her trademark humour.
Jemma’s friends and colleagues say she was a true innovator who saw possibilities where others didn’t, but she faced many battles too – for funding, for investment, for recognition.
For instance, when she was once asked at a conference why she had started by printing a middle finger, she said it was meant as a joke.
Or more accurately, it was a bio-printed hand gesture to her superiors at the time who had cut her funding.
When she died suddenly on 16 August 2016, tributes poured in from all around the world for a woman who, in the words of writer and publishing expert David Worlock, encapsulated the spirit of the age.
“Jemma’s ability to drive learning into business development and pitch at goals that stretch the range of human aspiration should be what we mean when we talk about the spirit of our age,” he wrote.
She also did much to reduce gender barriers and fight discrimination.
Friend and associate Bill Liao, the Cork-based CoderDojo co-founder, says he plans to campaign about discrimination, of all hues, in the months and years ahead.
He too has personal experience of prejudice, in particular growing up in Australia where he was singled out because he was half-Chinese.
In terms of her work, colleague and friend Tony Herbert in Cork recalls a woman whose “remorseless logic, all-encompassing knowledge, expertise and superb confidence in her mission” impressed so many.
“Had she been spared, Jemma Redmond was the kind of truly creative, driven and successful entrepreneur that moves mountains and creates the Apples and Microsofts of this world,” he says.
This is an edited extract from Through Her Eyes: A new history of Ireland in 21 Women by Clodagh Finn, published by Gill Books, and out now. €20.