Bleeding for science

Some research projects can only be done with human blood, and here at the Crick nearly 100 staff members give their blood to scientific research projects around the building. We caught up with the people involved to find out why and how they do it, and where the blood goes.

On the second floor of the Crick, postdoc Louise Hosie is waiting outside her lab for a delivery. Not for one of the hundreds of parcels that are delivered to the Crick each day, but a more unusual one: 8 vials of fresh human blood.

Human blood is a precious resource, so for good reason it's not easy to source samples for research. At the Crick, volunteers contribute to the work of scientists like Louise by donating small volumes of their blood to approved research projects.

The blood is used to study human diseases and infections – such as developing new methods of diagnosis and treatments, or selecting patients for clinical trials. Over half of our labs are actively involved in such research, and some require regular samples of fresh blood.

Gita Mistry, the Crick's Clinical Compliance Manager, oversees all projects involving human tissue and runs the in-house healthy blood donation system.

“The process is completely voluntary, and we always have plenty of volunteers,” says Gita. “People really want to contribute to the science. Of course, we have rigorous documentation and consent procedures to make sure people know what they're signing up for, and they can change their minds at any time.”

Researchers who need to use blood or other human tissue in their research have to apply for approval from our Human Ethics Group (HEG). 

Contributing to research

Once a study has been approved, Gita sends out an open call to staff to find and recruit healthy donors. There are almost 100 regular volunteers from various scientific and operations teams across the institute. 

One of the Crick's regular donors is Jim Aitken, Operational Applications Manager, who donates around 10 times a year. 

“It’s my contribution to research at the Crick,” says Jim. “It only takes few minutes out of your day - about as long as it takes to make a coffee.” 

Jim is a big advocate for the blood donation system and encourages his colleagues to sign up. “Sometimes people are scared of needles and blood, but it’s very easy and you almost don’t notice it,” he says. “It’s being used for important research going on here and brings us all closer to the science in the building.” 

Blood is usually taken in the morning, by a professional phlebotomist under Gita's supervision. After the blood has been drawn, Gita acts as the 'blood runner', taking the samples up to the scientists so they can start their experiments. 

Targeting tumours

Louise, a postdoctoral training fellow at the Retroviral Immunology lab, is one of the 7 researchers who uses fresh blood samples from the Crick. She has been using them for her research into melanoma, a type of skin cancer that affects over 15,000 new patients in the UK every year.

It only takes few minutes out of your day - about as long as it takes to make a coffee.
Jim Aitken, regular donor

“I’m looking at how the baseline immune system changes when a patient has cancer,” explains Louise. “By studying healthy samples, I can look at the immune response in the blood and compare this to what we see in cancer patients." 

Louise is particularly interested in T-cells, a type of white blood cells found in the peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) layer of the blood. They are important for finding and destroying infections or cancerous cells in the body. By comparing samples from healthy volunteers to samples from patients with melanoma, she can find how T-cells respond to cancer.

“I wouldn't be able to do this research without our volunteers,” says Louise. “Having fresh blood makes such a difference, as it becomes much harder to recover T-cells after the first 24 hours once the blood has been taken.”

“In the past, I’ve had to organise blood donations myself – obtaining ethical consent and organising the phlebotomist. The process here saves me time!”

In the lab, Louise receives her blood samples first thing in the morning. The samples are mixed together with diluting medium and put into a centrifuge. The different components of blood are separated depending on their density – red blood cells on the bottom, the PBMC layer in the middle, and plasma on top. The PBMC layer is extracted with a pipette and put under the microscope to be examined. Any unused samples are frozen for later use.

Louise hopes her research will lead to the discovery of new T-cells that can recognise unique markers in cancer. These cells may be able to identify and destroy specific types of cancerous cells, and can be used to develop immunotherapy treatments for cancer – for example a vaccination to boost T-cells in the blood and target tumours.

But for now, she’ll continue to need a fresh supply of blood for her project, and the Crick’s volunteer donors are happy to oblige.

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