New Sciences Driving Changes in The Nature of Laboratory Supplies

Many will still recall an era in which the basic sciences were essentially limited to chemistry, physics, zoology, botany, and possibly astronomy. Medicine was also fairly limited, involving a physical examination and perhaps a few tests on various body fluids to arrive at a diagnosis, followed either by surgery or a course of appropriate medication. Those simple times have long since vanished with the emergence of a multitude of new disciplines, both scientific and medical. In turn, the associated advances have led to some impressive changes in the nature of laboratory supplies.

Technological advances and the development of these new disciplines, however, have not been the only factors involved in promoting such changes. Efforts to reduce the time and cost involved in the cleaning (and, in many cases, sterilisation in an autoclave or hot-air oven) of items such as scalpels and syringes, have led to the formation of companies dedicated to the manufacture of single-use, disposable alternatives and a market for disposable medical and laboratory supplies that was estimated in 2017 to be worth almost US$200 billion annually and still growing. In the nation’s pathology departments, glass has steadily been replaced by various types of plastic for the production of items such as Petri dishes, pipettes, and specimen containers.

Another advance that has had a marked effect on suppliers is the introduction of test strips that may be used at the bedside or in a GP’s consulting rooms. These test kits are now a regular stock item for those companies that deal in medical supplies today. They consist of absorbent strips impregnated with various proprietary reagents with which, for example, to perform instant screening tests for blood, protein, bile, and glucose in urine. Each of these tests would have once required test tubes, specially prepared reagents, and perhaps heating, and would have kept a medical technologist busy for 20 to 30 minutes or more. Even a pregnancy test would once have taken a minimum of three days and required the daily injection and eventual dissection of a pair of specially-bred, infant white mice in order to examine their ovaries.

By comparison, however, it is the requirements of new fields such as gene therapy, organ transplants, assisted reproduction, and stem-cell research that have done most to change the nature of laboratory supplies. The field of medical diagnostics has also undergone a quantum leap, particularly with the development of techniques to identify the genetic markers associated with various types of malignant tumour, replacing techniques such as chromatography and electrophoresis that are not only extremely time-consuming but also less reliable.

From its earliest ingress into the clinical chemistry and histopathology departments, automation has succeeded in gaining a firm foothold in both haematology and microbiology with the development of automated cell counters, systems for inoculating culture plates, and to speed up blood culture results. Add to these the new requirements of cryopreservation, now essential to the success of procedures such as organ and bone-marrow transplants, stem-cell cultures, and in-vitro fertilisation and it is easy to see how the nature of laboratory supplies has been transformed. As always, assisting the medical and scientific communities in South Africa with this transformation is IEPSA.

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