One of the most foolproof methods doctors use to diagnose diseases is to simply take a tissue sample from a patient.
But preparing, examining and storing those samples is a huge undertaking – which is why millions of pounds has been invested in Sheffield’s cutting-edge histopathology department at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.
Scientists in the lab study anything from the smallest skin samples to whole human organs, playing a vital role in determining cases of deadly diseases such as cancer.
The laboratory caters for 50,000 patients every year, producing results in as little as three hours.
The revamp, part of a £16m overhaul of the labs at the Royal Hallamshire and Northern General hospitals, has streamlined the way samples are handled.
Tony Pedder, chairman of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We have something we can be very proud of – there are very few laboratory testing facilities in the NHS of the quality Sheffield Teaching Hospitals has now.”
Samples from across the city are first brought to the specimen reception and checked by a group of industrious workers.
“A lot of the work is biopsies – sometimes there are between one and 20 per patient,” said lead laboratory manager Louise Dunk.
In Sheffield, when a patient has a biopsy or surgery, diseased tissue is removed and treated with hot paraffin wax to create ‘tissue blocks’.
The blocks are then sliced into thin layers which are placed on glass slides and examined under the microscope.
There is also a ‘frozen section’ room, where tissue can be put on ice and quickly looked at in urgent cases – such as a surgeon suddenly discovering a suspected tumour during an operation.
The dissection room team deals with complete body parts, such as gall bladders and appendixes.
Ms Dunk said Sheffield Teaching Hospitals keeps tissue blocks dating from as long ago as 1948.
“Our storage capacity is enormous. The guideline now is that we have to keep them for 30 years, but we keep everything forever.”
Retaining blocks comes in useful for DNA tests, or checking possible misdiagnoses, she added.
Meanwhile, two large machines called automated immunostainers test samples for specific molecules, allowing cancer treatments to be precisely targeted.
The machines are only running at six sites around the world.
But Dr Goepel said that while histopathology practices are becoming more modern and automated, medics’ experience will still be prized.
He said: “The pathologist’s skill going forward will be making professional judgements as to what to do.”