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CoffeeTime Science: The Blood and Guts of Science

7th January 2016
By Guest Author

If it’s gory, you know for sure we’ll discuss it over lunch!

We’re having our post-lunch coffee. Today’s lunchtime conversation was particularly entertaining – and gross. “Isn’t it amazing how scientists – I’m assuming they’re all like us – can talk about the grossest things, mainly over food, and not be put off by it?” Katja observes.

“It’s because we do gross things as part of our work,” Narges adds.

“Although maybe not all of us have stomachs of steel. Remember when poor Big Bird* told us she couldn’t eat for two days after processing that liver sample? Admittedly, it was more fatty tissue than liver tissue,” I interject.

“That reminds me of a colleague of mine who worked on adipose tissue. He received a sample from an excess skin removal operation (after liposuction) and instead of receiving a small container with tissue to isolate adipocytes from, he received the entire piece of stomach skin that had been removed – and it was massive! I will never forget the look on his face as he stared at this giant flap of skin in his tissue culture hood.” Katja and Narges look at me with a mixture of disgust and delight.

CTSThe truth is, in order to work with human samples, you need to deal with where those samples come from. The most benign type of sample most of us work with is blood, and none of us even bat an eyelid when we receive tubes – or bags – full of it. Other types of samples require more time and effort to collect, and often a good deal of tolerance for gore.

“I would sometimes get lung fluids from emphysema patients,” Katja tells us, “which meant receiving a bag of fluid with bits of lung floating in it.”

Nice! That reminds me of my colleague Christy, who used to work with tracheal aspirates taken from respirators of newborns in the hospital (aka baby spit). My favourite was when we used to collect cord blood from C-sections. “Placentas are weird, they are these purple, warm, lumpy things covered in veins. They kind of look like the alien brains from Mars Attacks,” I recollect. We used to wait in the ante-room of the O.R. during the C-section and get the placentas as soon as they were removed and tried to get as much blood as possible out of the veins with 50ml syringes. Getting dressed up for the O.R. was fun, and watching the surgeon perform the C-section and bring a baby into this world was quite something. I was very moved the first time I saw one, watching the incision, seeing the surgeon put their hand inside and pull out a baby, hearing the little thing cry in protest. We knew all the surgeons after a while, the fastest one (my colleague Zofia and I used to bet on how long she’d take) could do the whole thing in about 10 minutes. Cut, insert arm, pull out baby, remove placenta, done. The baby gets handed to the neonatologist and one of the assistants always did the stitching up.

Katja reminds me that one of the groups in our institute works exclusively on tissues from HIV positive patients, and that she often overhears conversations like “we have a fresh cervix” or “it was supposed to be upper intestine, but it’s all colon”. There is also a “poop” room for those working on stool microbiota. “That is definitely not something for me,” I exclaim, “I can deal with blood, tissues, placentas, whatever, but poop – that’s where I draw the line!”

Narges laughs at me, “Do you want some chocolate?!?” No thanks. Maybe next coffee break…

* I’m working my way through all the characters, this is in no way to suggest that the person in question is either big or yellow, or, in fact, a bird.

Christine-palmerMy name is Christine, and I am an immunologist. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for a second postdoc. Six years later, I’ve made Boston my permanent home, but I am currently on an 8-month sabbatical back in London, where I am learning new things at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before returning to Boston. In addition to doing research, I write a series of blogs about conversations and discussions I have had with other scientists, with topics ranging from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technologies and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments.

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