UCL Ear Institute

Prof Anthony Wright

Prof Anthony Wright

Emeritus Professor of Otorhinolaryngology

The Ear Institute

Faculty of Brain Sciences

Joined UCL
1st Nov 2007

Research summary

My research took new directions as I moved to London, but time was limited with the clinical work and being a head of department. In liaison with Prof Alf Linney from Medical Physics, we started looking into image handling and stereo (not 3D) reconstruction of sectional data (such as CT and MRI scans). An offshoot of this led to exciting projects, such as CT scanning the mummies at the British Museum and creating images of the contents of the casks with the pictures on the coffins morphed onto “reconstructed” faces.  My experience with stereoscopy from measuring the dimensions of the stereocilia of human and animal hair cells from SEM stereo pairs was very useful.

I have now returned to working with the ear and we are looking at the reasons why normal healthy ear canal skin suddenly alters to become overactive and invasive to form a cholesteatoma. The thesis is that there is some genetic change that makes the skin cell precursors change to what looks like a developmental stage when there is enormous proliferation as the ear canal forms in the foetus. We are undertaking DNA profiles of clinical material obtained from patients with the disease and from controls, and may be able to rescue DNA from the foetal temporal bone specimens in our collection.


Inspired by my father, who got me to save to buy my first microscope aged nine, I have been involved in research for the last forty years and in the sixth form at school in 1966, I was runner up in the Prince Phillip Prize for Zoology, from the Zoological Society of London, with a dissertation on “Bumble Bee Behaviour”. At university I took a biochemistry degree in the middle of my medical course and was tempted to go into biochemistry full time.  One of my supervisors (Francis Crick) suggested that I continue with the medicine, since MRC grants paid better than those from the SRC. He warned that the risk was that I would be seduced by medicine, and indeed he was right.

My pursuit of research has continued, however, and my total grant income is over £4m since 1991. I was a founder member of the Otolaryngological Research Society and then the secretary and finally the Chair. As ENT Senior Registrar in Liverpool, I was lucky enough to be awarded an MRC training fellowship, which gave me eighteen months full time to study the ultrastructure of the normal and drug damaged human inner ear from rapidly fixed, very early post mortem specimens. I managed to get given a transmission electron microscope (TEM) from Shell Refineries in nearby Widnes, and with help transported it bit by bit in a Citroen 2CV to the ENT department, where it was rebuilt and worked! As the scanning electron microscope (SEM) kept breaking and everyone blamed me each time it happened, I went back to school and took a technical diploma in microscopy.

I then moved to the Institute of Laryngology and Otology (ILO), completed my MD, became  immersed in clinical work but continued to work with Andy Forge with the human material I had. A few years later, Professor Sir Donald Harrison retired and it was uncertain whether his chair would be re advertised or indeed what the future of the ILO, was to be. Finally the post was advertised and I was again fortunate enough to be appointed in 1991 as director of the ILO at the same time as I had just started a part time masters degree in Law at Cardiff Law School. These were difficult times, as the ILO had just become part of UCL and there was a lot of juggling necessary to keep us from being disbanded. Fortunately help was forthcoming from Tony Ranzetta, who was the chief executive of the RNTNE Trust, and who agreed to contribute to the cost of the clinical academics, much to the relief of the Provost Derek Roberts (later Sir Derek). Recently David Howard (Senior Lecturer in Laryngology) and I became a planned part of the UCL regeneration scheme which saw us taking “retirement” to allow new blood to be brought in. The process is nearly complete so that clinical academic continuity is ensured with two extremely able people taking over.