To the hundreds of people across east London with sickle cell disease who require regular blood transfusions, a team of pathologists working at Barts Health laboratories is their hidden life source. So the two groups have met for the first time to share their stories, with pathologists thanked for their life-saving work.
One of the patients present was Dr Yvette Hendricks, a 55 year old Hackney GP who lives in Walthamstow. Yvette receives monthly blood transfusions to relieve her symptoms, also suffering from arthritis in her right ankle as a result of frequent leg ulcers caused by the disease.
Yvette told the group: "It's not often I get to thank everyone behind the scenes, and I've been a patient at The Royal London since I was five so that’s a lot of people. It’s because of your use of science leading to medical advancements that I'm still here.
“I have monthly transfusions; it takes a few hours and for the first two weeks I have very high energy. But by the third week I start to feel ill again. It is grim - pain is a significant problem in sickle cell anaemia.”
"My mother was 73 when she passed away at The Royal London Hospital a few years ago. We were told that she was probably the eldest of all the patients with sickle cell; that is down to the care we have both received. Thank you."
Pathologists look at the causes and effects of diseases, in particular laboratory examination of samples of blood and body tissues. Their science better informs research, which has enabled the innovation of treatments to improve quality of life and even save the lives of people with serious illnesses.
Michelle Martin, Senior Specialist Biomedical Scientist at Barts Health NHS Trust, explained: “It was wonderful to take off our white coats and step out of the laboratory to meet some of the people who our teams help, and hear how we make a difference. We’re at the centre of care for people with sickle cell disease from the minute we confirm they have the disease, right through to treatment when processing their blood and that of blood donors before a transfusion.”
People with sickle cell disease produce unusually shaped red blood cells that don't live as long as healthy blood cells, becoming stuck in blood vessels and causing health problems. It affects people in various ways, but as blood travels across the body often all organs and tissues suffer, causing chronic anaemia, frequent infections and extreme pain.
About 1 in 2,000 babies born in the UK are diagnosed with sickle cell disease, with many at risk of death or complications from treatable infections, severe acute anaemia and stroke particularly in the first few years of life if not given appropriate support. Care relies on early diagnosis, prevention of infection and using treatments that can reduce the severity of problems, such as getting vaccinated to help avoid infection.
Blood transfusions are one line of treatment although cannot cure, with more black donors desperately needed to ensure a match so that people receive the safest and best blood for them.
Although pathology has discovered a way to culture blood in a laboratory it is not as effective as human blood, and work continues to improve it. Science has also enabled some children and young adults to be successfully treated with bone marrow transplants, and research continues.
Consultant Haematologist Banu Kaya at Barts Health NHS Trust added: “Investment in new therapies for sickle cell disease is limited compared to others such as cancer. But as our understanding of pathology has evolved in recent years we have made progress and scientific developments meaning that the life expectancy of people in the UK with sickle cell disease is increasing. We can now focus on what goes wrong in sickle cell disease, and we’re looking at treatments like gene therapy as a cure.”
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Patients and staff met on 9 November 2016 to mark National Pathology Week 2016.
In the UK babies are screened early in life to detect if they have sickle cell disease.
At Barts Health, parents are assigned a nurse specialist who offers expert advice and information on how to live well with sickle cell disease. Community nurses as well as paediatric and adult nurses are all involved in the life-long care of those affected.
Emergency care guidelines are also in place at A&Es to fast-track patients who arrive in crisis, such as when a high temperature or pain does not respond to treatment at home.
Barts Health Pathology department is the largest in the UK, with over 600 staff performing 1.7 million tests per month. Each Barts Health hospital has a 24-hour, 7-days a week laboratory.
The state-of-the-art Pathology building at The Royal London Hospital was built in 2006, bringing together 27 different laboratories into new premises, spread over five floors.
Barts Health NHS Trust
With a turnover of £1.4 billion and a workforce of around 16,000, Barts Health is the largest NHS trust in the country, and one of Britain’s leading healthcare providers. The Trust’s five hospitals – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City, including the Barts Heart Centre, The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, Newham University Hospital in Plaistow, Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone and Mile End – deliver high quality compassionate care to the 2.5 million people of East London and beyond.