Meeting the Whitechapel team who keep them alive—Sickle Cell patients living with a killer disease

Ready for analysis... blood sample at Royal London's pathology labs

Ready for analysis... blood sample at Royal London's pathology labs - Credit: Archant

Sufferers of Sickle Cell disease have been behind the scenes to meet the scientists who routinely save their lives at the pathology research labs in east London where their blood is regularly screened.

Lab assistants testing blood samples at Royal London

Lab assistants testing blood samples at Royal London - Credit: Archant

Hidden away beside the bold blue exterior of the new Royal London Hospital’s new towering complex in Whitechapel are 600 ‘back room’ staff working in labs carrying out nearly two-million individual tests every month, processing blood samples.

There are hundreds of people across east London needing regular transfusions to survive and this team of pathology researchers is their hidden life source—but not enough donors from their ethnic community are coming forward, according to Barts NHS Health.

One patient invited to look round was Dr Yvette Hendricks, a 55-year-old Hackney GP who has had the inherited disease from childhood who receives monthly blood transfusions to relieve her painful symptoms.

“It’s not often I get to thank everyone behind the scenes,” Yvette says. “I’ve been a patient at the Royal London since I was five—so that’s a lot of people. It’s because of their use of science for medical advancements that I’m still here.”

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Yvette’s transfusions take several hours, which give her high energy for a fortnight. But she starts to feel ill again by the third week. She also has arthritis from frequent leg ulcers caused by the disease.

Blood samples wait for analysis at Royal London's pathology labs

Blood samples wait for analysis at Royal London's pathology labs - Credit: Archant

Sickle Cell is an inherited condition common in the Black community—her mother also had it.

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“It is grim—the pain is a significant problem,” Yveette tells you. “My mother was 73 when she died a few years ago, probably the oldest of all the Sickle Cell patients at the Royal London—that’s down to the care we both received.”

Pathologists examine lab samples of blood and body tissues for the cause and effect of the disease. Their science has led to new treatments to improve quality of life and even saving life.

That’s all happens in the backroom labs tucked away behind the Whitechapel Road, overshadowed by the new Royal London complex around the corner.

Specialist biomedical scientist Michelle Martin said: “It was wonderful taking off our white coats and stepping out to meet the people we help and hear how we make a difference.

Sickle Cell patient... Dr Yvette Hendricks

Sickle Cell patient... Dr Yvette Hendricks - Credit: Barts NHS Trust

“We’re at the centre of care for people with Sickle Cell from the minute we confirm they have the disease through to treatment when processing their blood before a transfusion.”

Sufferers produce unusually-shaped red blood cells that don’t last as long as healthy cells, which get stuck in blood vessels and cause problems in all organs and tissues, resulting in chronic anaemia, frequent infections and extreme pain.

About one-in-2,000 babies born in Britain are diagnosed with Sickle Cell disease, at risk of dying or complications like acute anaemia and stroke in early years.

The right treatment relies on early diagnosis and preventing infection by getting vaccinated. Blood transfusions are one treatment, although not a cure.

Pathology has discovered a way to culture blood in the laboratory. But science can only go so far.

It is not as effective as having human donors from the Black community to make the right match to get the safest blood for patients, despite having successfully treating some children and young adults with bone marrow transplants.

The labs focus on what goes wrong with the blood cells. Investment in new therapies for Sickle Cell disease is limited, although scientific developments in pathology are evolving to improve the life expectancy of those who suffer this painful, inherited condition.

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