Door Dave Thomas. Activiteit op 11 september 2014.

Blood, blood and plasma

After passing through the standard atrium entrance my first impression of Sanquin was art. Loads of it hanging everywhere. The link with blood? That came immediately after our welcoming lunch when professor Rene van Lier gave us a whistle-stop tour of Sanquin’s history. The second director of the then Central Blood Laboratory, Jochem van Lochem, was a keen art collector.

Sanquin is a three-in-one organisation for blood: blood bank, blood research centre, and manufacturer of plasma products. Our afternoon was a mix of presentations and visits to parts of the facilities.

Professor Hans Zaaijer gave a lucid account of how he discovered that hepatitis E is not just a backpacker’s disease but can be acquired from eating pork products (pigs carry the virus). Fortunately, if the pork is cooked properly and you have a healthy immune system you have little to worry about. Were Sanquin putting this to the test, I wondered, when they offered as sausage rolls later as an afternoon snack?

Walking round the labs where they screen donated blood was a lesson in logistics. It takes just two staff and an array of automated equipment to screen 12,000 blood samples in less than 24 hours. And the high-tech facilities were equally impressive. For example, an animation of white blood cells passing through a layer of endothelial cells that had been created using images taken with a confocal laser-scanning microscope.

My only regret during the afternoon was that we spent relatively little time seeing the facilities. PowerPoint overload hit at about 3 o’clock. That session led, however, to one of the journalists rightly criticising the use of English words for which there is a good Dutch equivalent. Other than seeing the high-tech facility, I’d like to have spent the rest of the afternoon touring the plasma processing plant and observing first hand how they produce plasma products such as factor VIII and immunoglobulins. Apparently that plant is the biggest consumer of alcohol in the Netherlands. One tanker full of the stuff is needed each day to fractionate the proteins from the plasma.

Which part I enjoyed the most? The informal drinks with the researchers and the anecdotes they told. I asked one of the professors why he had decided to work in the field of blood. Instead of the standard X inspired me answer I got a completely unexpected response. Like many others of his generation, he had started his career at Sanquin to avoid compulsory military service. In return for spending half a day a week screening blood donor samples he could spend the other 4.5 days doing research.

Overall it was a highly informative and inspiring visit. Sanquin were conscientious hosts and I really appreciated the information pack we received in advance and the goody bag of information at the end of the afternoon.

Before leaving I spoke to a researcher who recalled meeting Jochem van Lochem. He was charismatic and had little time for hierarchy or standing on formalities. Besides having a fine nose for art (he acquired some of Lichtenstein’s works before he became famous) his ears were finely tuned towards the intrinsic value of what people had to say. He’d have made a good journalist.