The Royal Marsden Biomedical science

A day in the life: Julie Hollifield, Biomedical Scientist

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Every year, we perform more than 200 stem cell transplants at The Royal Marsden for leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma patients.

Julie Hollifield, Biomedical Scientist

200+

stem cell transplants performed annually

I work in the stem cell laboratory at Sutton, which plays a vital part in the Haemato-oncology Stem Cell Transplant Programme. I process, test and store stem cells, ensuring that patients receive them within the correct time limit and in perfect condition.

There are two types of stem cell transplant. Autologous transplants are where we harvest stem cells from a patient, freeze them and then give them back to the patient once they have received high-dose chemotherapy. With allogeneic transplants, healthy stem cells from the blood or bone marrow of a matched family member or an unrelated volunteer are collected and transplanted into the patient.

COLD STORAGE

A team of 10 people work in the stem cell laboratory. They are responsible for processing and storing the cells in a safe and timely way. Each step is carefully checked to ensure the final product is of the highest quality.

Cell processing takes place in a completely sterile environment, so we work in a special clean room with filtered air while wearing protective clothing. I look at the number of cells in the harvests and check the sterility of the product. The cells are mixed with special cryo-protectant, cooled and transferred to high-performance bags that can withstand extremely cold storage temperatures.

I'm then responsible for ensuring the bags are sealed, labelled, overwrapped, sealed again and stored in metal freezing cassettes before they are frozen down. I can repeat this process two or three times a day.

Stem cells need to be frozen slowly, a one-degree drop per minute. After freezing, the cell bags are transferred to cryogenic storage tanks at temperatures of between -140˚C and -196˚C. We wear protective gloves whenever we are working with the frozen cell bags to avoid frostbite.

We store more than 7,000 bags of cells in the tanks – we say this is equivalent to 7,000 lives. The cryogenic freezing facility is monitored 24 hours a day. The tanks are checked every day of the year to make sure the temperatures are correct and that the cells are not compromised.

We always need to know the temperature of the cells and audit everything we do.

My job demands high levels of accuracy... It can be pretty intense

LIFE-SAVING TREATMENT

We have a special transport shipper to carry the cells to the wards at the same low temperature, which is closely monitored during this and the thawing process.

As you can imagine, this role demands high levels of accuracy and can be pretty intense. If anything goes wrong with the cells, we can't just go back and get some more. But I really enjoy the technical aspects of the job and there is a big emphasis on teamwork. We are dealing with people's futures, helping to provide life-saving treatment for them.

The favourite part of my role is when I go to the wards to collect harvested cells and also to deliver the cells for transplant. I see the patients and their families and put a face to a name. Meeting patients reminds me why I do this job.