LIFE IN A LAB Biochemists study the zillions of simultaneous chemical reactions that occur in the human body and help physicians prescribe drugs to cure diseases
Medical treatment can often go perfectly right or horribly wrong - subject to the accuracy of the diagnosis, which is why people working in medical laboratories have to be extra vigilant at work. Today’s modern laboratories are manned by personnel from the three departments of biochemistry, pathology and microbioloy.
Dr Malavika Barman, assistant professor, department of biochemistry, Gauhati Medical College explains, “The biochemists look after all the routine chemical tests done on blood, cerebrospinal fluid, urine etc. These are mainly the levels of blood sugar, liver and renal functions, lipid profile, different hormone levels etc. They also deal with specialised tests like cancer markers, molecular genetics and genetic profiling. Pathologists look into cell and tissue morphology. Study of tissue histology gives a clue to various types and stages of disease progression. microbiologists help to identify which microbes (bacteria, virus or fungi) are responsible for causing diseases and also determine whether a microbe has mutated or not. They also help the physician in prescribing the drug best suited to kill a certain infection.”
At all levels the three branches work in tandem, complementing each other to help patients. Dr Barman has an interesting take on her specialisation and says that it has considerable scope for new learnings and discovery. In her words, “Our body can be visualised to be the most complicated machine, with each body process being carried out by zillions of chemical reactions going on in tandem. Any deviation manifests as a change in blood levels of certain parameters. The attempt to understand this interesting world of molecules inspired me to become a biochemist.”
Barman says that the last 12 years as a biochemist has taken her through a roller-coaster of ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’. “Once a father had brought his ailing four-year-old child for some blood tests prescribed by the physician. However, after taking the patient history we decided on running a few additional tests not requisitioned by the physician at our own cost. The tests came abnormal, indicating a totally different disease progression. We informed his physician who changed his treatment protocol and the child was saved. The physician, a very senior person, was all praise for our work.”
“A huge low,” according to Dr Barman, is when she encounters instances of how the “public at large is unaware of the role of a medical biochemist. “This is a huge ‘low’. Moreover, in spite of so many MD biochemists passing out every year, many organisations are still recruiting MSc biochemists (who have no medical degree) to do patient reporting and also as teaching faculty of medical colleges.”
Research is a very vital part of this field. “Without engaging in research we cannot hope for new information and innovation to strengthen our arsenal against diseases,” shares Dr Barman.
Talking about her vision she concludes, “Given an opportunity, one day I would like to make my dream to take sophisticated diagnostic facilities to the small towns and villages a reality. Rather than patients coming to bigger towns and cities, I want diagnostic facilities to reach the community. However, I feel one can’t hope of reaching a goal if one doesn’t dream of doing so.”
Dr Malavika Barman, assistant professor, department of biochemistry, Gauhati Medical College, checks out the latest version of an autoanalyser; a machine used for studying blood samples.