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Biomedical scientists crucial to diagnoses - and COVID-19 testing

11/06/2020

Biomedical Sciences Day on 11 June 2020 is an opportunity to celebrate the vital and often unseen work of our laboratory staff, who in normal times play a crucial role in diagnosing illnesses, but who have over the past few weeks been fundamental to the our efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biomedical Science Day is an annual event to promote the role scientists play in healthcare, diagnosing, monitoring and screening for diseases from patient samples. Across the NHS, laboratories are involved in more than 70 percent of diagnoses.

"We handle all kinds of sample - blood, urine, tissue or even toe-nails! Our diagnoses support treatment, ensure a smooth care pathway and ultimately the best possible outcome for the patient," says OUH Microbiology Laboratory Manager Sarah Oakley.

"It is thought that every UK citizen will have at least one sample handled by a biomedical scientist in their lifetime. Of course, in today's SARS-COV-2 pandemic, this is an even bigger certainty."

In the last year, OUH's Pathology and Laboratory departments handled 15.2 million tests.

Within the Trust there are a number of laboratory services providing routine and highly specialist diagnostic services that support patient care: Biochemistry, Haematology, Cellular Pathology and Neuropathology, Immunology, Transplant Immunology, Genetics and Microbiology. But these departments do much more: they also support research and innovation, the development of vaccines, improved testing and stewardship in treatments.

Although COVID-19 testing sits within Microbiology, the pandemic has brought the different laboratories - and all of the Biomedical Scientists across the Trust - together in a concerted effort.

"In the space of three months, we have gone from zero tests to over 23,500 molecular screens per month for the SARS-COV-2 antigen. We are able to deliver the results just 24 hours after the swab is taken," Sarah Oakley says. This effort is happening while the labs continue to deliver their routine 'business-as-usual' tests.

The test to identify current COVID-19 infection requires a nasal and throat swab. The OUH scientists in Microbiology have worked closely with colleagues from the Genetics and Molecular Haematology laboratories and the University of Oxford to create capacity to test over 3,000 of these per day, ensuring the service will be resilient if there is a further peak, or mass screening is required. 

From the beginning of June 2020, antibody testing was introduced. This entails using blood samples to see if a person had an antibody response to the virus.

"This involves processing the samples at high volume on the automated blood sciences analysers, where Microbiology works closely with their biochemistry and haematology colleagues," says Dr Derek Roskell, the Clinical Director for Pathology and Laboratories. "In under two weeks, we have completed over 11,000 tests.

"When we look at that laboratory, with its robotics, computers and automated analysers, it is easy to see this as an amazing piece of technology. If you look beyond the machines you see the highly skilled scientists running it all. They build and run the quality processes and data pathways that get thousands of reliable results into the correct patient record 24 hours per day, every day."

He adds: "When we introduced the COVID-19 serology test it was our people who worked for days setting it all up, making sure the analyser and all the processes around it were working, and building the IT and quality infrastructure that tests like this need."

One of the most heartening aspects of the response to COVID-19 has been the way people have stepped forward to help out.

"When the pandemic started in the UK, we looked to former Biomedical Science staff and to scientific staff in the University departments to support as volunteers. We received so much interest that we were overwhelmed," Dr Roskell says. "Many additional staff have joined the team. As some of the volunteers have returned to their usual jobs, COVID hasn't gone away and we are now looking to recruit further."

"When COVID-19 first appeared we knew it would have an impact on our laboratories. The original request from NHS England to create the ability to run a couple of hundred tests per day rapidly grew into the massive testing operation we now have in place. All through this the Biomedical Science team within the OUH Pathology departments have stepped up to every new challenge. I have never felt that we've been in danger of failing."

One of the aims of Biomedical Science Day is to encourage young people to consider a career as a healthcare scientist.

Sarah Oakley says that as a profession, it is "exciting and fascinating, and no day is the same".

"The pandemic has been challenging, but it has shown the importance of diagnostic NHS laboratories and the quality of the work undertaken," she says.

Even outside an emergency like COVID-19, biomedical scientists play a central role in the NHS, tackling a range of medical conditions.

It you are interested in working in this field, visit Health Careers UK

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