Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Peek around the Path Labs

Ever wondered, as a regular hospital patient, what they get up to with all those endless blood and tissue samples that the doctors keep taking? Well it isn't every day that you are offered a chance to have a guided tour around the pathology labs of your hospital, but then again Papworth Hospital is no ordinary hospital being a world renowned and leading heart and lung hospital. Thanks to Michelle, who runs the Papworth PH Matters Support Group and Dr Mark Southwood a post doctoral researcher at Papworth, a tour of the pathology labs was arranged for our group. I've tried my best to be accurate in my account of what I saw, but I am no scientist, so I apologise now if I've got something wrong, there was so much to learn and see and take in!

Our first stops after being welcomed was the 'Cut Up Room' and the 'Main Laboratory'. Fortunately, no, nothing gory was going on here as we all went through to our first port of call with some trepidation, hearts and lungs being chopped up kept springing into my mind! In here it was explained to us how all specimens handled are assigned a unique pathology number to keep track of them. Tissue samples are examined and dissected and placed in small cassettes, where they are bathed in a fixative ready for processing. The fixative hardens the tissue and prevents the proteins within the cells from degrading. The tissue can then be saved forever. After the tissue is hardened it is ready for the processing machine, which takes about eight hours or so to dehydrate the tissue.

Next on the tissue is embedded in hot wax to form a tissue block and then thin slices of tissue using a cutting instrument can be cut. They are then stained with Haematoxylin and Eosin and then they are ready to be examined on a slide under the microscope. We got chance to examine some tissue slides under the microscopes in the main laboratory.  I couldn't help getting the feeling after teaching primary school science for many years that here is proper, real life, exciting science going on before my eyes!

Next on the agenda was the Immunohistochemistry, Immunology  and research rooms, now we were really getting to the cutting edge of science and we got to see how relative to PH the research in these rooms was too. Sections of the tissue block are treated with antibodies to the specific proteins the researcher may want to test and the slides develop a brown colour when the designated antibody is detected and then it can be detected on the slide where the identified protein is present. We were introduced to flow cytometry, a technique for counting and examining microscopic particles such as cells and chromosones and is routinely used in the diagnosis of health disorders.

It was explained to us about all the different types of research being undertaken including using tissue banking, cell cultures and luminex analysis, all providing a spread of information relative to various diseases and research projects. There is research going on into cytokine signalling in PH and link up with Professor Nick Morrell's team at Cambridge University and the research they are undertaking there on genetics. As Papworth Hospital is a specialist heart and lung hospital, they often have referrals for their expertise from other hospitals.

We went on via the freezer and tissue store areas to the Haematology and Blood Sciences Laboratory, here we were given a talk about how they tested the blood samples and were shown the equipment they use. It was interesting to find out that this department was located at Papworth, but belonged to Addenbrookes. The Papworth site do the more routine blood tests and operate twenty four hours a day and all other blood samples are sent to Addenbrookes for analysis. As well as undertaking the blood sampling, this lab is also responsible for managing the blood stock for blood transfusions that are needed during some of the major heart and lung operations that take place at Papworth. We were shown some examples and shown how it was all stored. I couldn't help asking how much blood they would normally prepare for a major operation, having my transplant operation springing to mind, as I have already prepared and signed the forms to consent for a blood transfusion. The answer was that they usually prepare three bags of blood in readiness, but obviously it is variable.

Last but not least was an optional visit to the mortuary, I'd already decided to opt out of this one, but everything was so interesting and staff so accommodating that when it came to it, it felt like a natural close to the tour. So in for a penny, in for a pound, off we went. We were shown through the family waiting areas and into the the autopsy room. The key emphasis on this part of the tour was how staff gave their utmost respect, care and sensitivity to the deceased patients and their families.

After a busy lunch break back at the library halls, Doctor Southwood then kindly gave us a talk about the research of pulmonary hypertension. and explained in detail the types of information they have been able to gather following analysis in the labs of tissue samples taken from patients who had had Pulmonary Endarterectomy operations and transplant operations and also how this links in with the research work being undertaken by Professor Nick Morrell at Cambridge University in conjunction with all the other specialist PH centres.

All in all it was a very busy day, full of new and interesting information, it really opened my mind how all the information gathered at Papworth comes together to make a centre of expertise that also informs other hospitals and many internal and external research projects. I was also really encouraged at how much work is being done to try and find out more about our disease. Now there is no mystery surrounding what happens after our blood and tissue samples are sent for testing, it has become a tangible thing, we can put faces to the people and we have seen all the equipment, know the processes and all their stages.

On a very personal note I was most interested to hear how much the tissue sampling can help add to the bank of information held on PH and on the funny side I cannot help thinking that one of the first things I will be saying when I wake up from having my heart and lung transplant operation is, 'did you get that bucket with my old heart and lungs in across to the research team?'

I would like to thank all the staff at the pathology and haemotology labs for making us so welcome and being so helpful and all the staff who worked hard behind the scenes to prepare for our visit.

Papworth PH Matters Support Group: next meeting is Saturday 7th September in Papworth, Library Hall. Michelle has arranged for researcher Amer Rana from Cambridge University to talk to us about the latest research going on for PH. The support group makes everyone welcome and is for anyone affected by PH, patients, families and friends. You do not need to be a Papworth patient to attend. 

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