My new lab is different: we’re not getting patient specimens for testing, and we’re not reporting results to doctors. We’re a manufacturing lab, taking plasma, unsuitable for donation because of antibodies, and making a useful product out of it. It’s an entirely different world from the hospital labs I started in, and I’d like to give you a window so you can peek inside. Here’s an anecdote and a description of one of my tasks for you.
One of our big pieces of equipment in the lab is a liquid nitrogen tank, where we keep rare cells, frozen in little vials. We need to go in and retrieve them for testing sometimes, depending on what project is underway, and nobody enjoys doing it, because it’s cold in that tank. About -180C on average. We put on big blue gloves worthy of an Antarctic expedition, pop up the lid, and then reach in and pull out one of the vertical racks submerged in liquid nitrogen. Each rack has several shelves, and on each shelf is a little cardboard box containing a selection of vials. We have to pull out the rack, lean it horizontally in the tank so it stays cold, then pull out the right box, tip it to pour out the liquid nitrogen, and then sit it on the tank edge to open it and pick out the right vial.
Of course, as I turned back to put the lid back onto the box of vials, I bumped the box with my clumsy blue gloves and then gasped as the box flipped over into the tank, releasing fifteen vials of valuable cells into the liquid below. First I yelped, then I cursed, then I sighed. Peeking into the tank, I could barely see through the fog created when the cold condenses the water vapor out of the air, but somewhere under the clouds I could see white caps bobbing at the surface of the nitrogen, daring me to reach in for them. Considering my limited options – human hands, even in big antarctic gloves, don’t react well to immersion in liquid nitrogen – I went looking for my supervisor.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the first to dump vials into the tank, but that didn’t make me feel much better. My supervisor rigged a scoop out of a huge pair of pliers and a small sieve, and we went fishing. The floating vials came up pretty easily, but the others were more of a challenge, requiring some digging and scraping of the ice at the bottom to dislodge the vials that had filled with liquid nitrogen and gone down. We got them all, but not until after I knocked one back into the tank while trying to stuff it into the box. Lucky for me, my supervisor found this funny enough to almost choke to death, instead of being frustrated with his twitchy underling.
When I’ve done everything right, the final product from weeks of effort is a huge glass vessel full of processed and purified serum – it can be up to 30 liters, but usually it’s closer to 15 or so. It has preservative in it to prevent microbial growth, but nonetheless, It gets put through an extremely fine filter before we proceed to fill our final 3- or 5-mL product vials.
The vials are filled manually with the help of a small pump and a very coordinated tech who’s able to aim the liquid into the vials one at a time, over and over, until they’re all full. The filling is done in a fancy “clean room”, which means that when I go in to help, I dress up like I’m going to tackle the Andromeda Strain. Fluffy blue hairnet, gloves, mask, hood, booties, and a giant set of white coveralls. Here’s an example of the checklist I have to go through to make sure I’m fully covered up:
Those suits are made of a synthetic, plastic-like material so they don’t shed fibers, which also makes them very warm! I’m glad I only need to put on the “bunny suit” every few weeks. It’s not exactly a flattering look for me. We have a filling session once a month on average, and it can take almost a whole day for the bigger volumes. While we’re in the room, we perform environmental monitoring to check for particles and bacteria or molds in the air, and we wipe everything down, especially our hands, regularly with alcohol foam. At the end of the process, we touch microbiology plates with our fingers to see if we did a good job staying clean. If anything grows, we’re in trouble.
As one person fills the vials, someone else puts caps on them and secures them gently. The vials sit snugly against each other, about 250 to a metal tray, so this part is tricky, especially with gloved hands slippery from alcohol gel. Outside of the clean room, we tighten the caps all the way, re-check the count, and then secure the product in a tamper-proof box or wire cage. At this point, the vials are unlabeled, and since a vial of plasma looks like a vial of plasma, we wouldn’t be able to tell two products apart if we mixed them up. We keep everything apart and clearly labeled on the outside, and we make sure that the area is completely free of any other product before we take them from their secure storage to label and inspect them.
It’s so very different from what I was used to in the hospitals, and yet the concepts are the same. Quality control, attention to details, careful labeling – you’ll see this in any lab you visit. While the context might change, and the products and results labs put out will vary, you can be sure the techs behind the work are referencing Standard Operating Procedures and following the rules. Because what we do matters, and we know it.