The phone rings and I am told: “The tonsils have arrived”

The phone rings and I am told: “The tonsils have arrived”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how some of the conversations I have on a daily basis are weird and wonderful to those unfamiliar with the inner workings of a research lab. Recently, when showing a prospective Biomaterials undergraduate around my lab, I saw the excitement and wonder experienced by setting foot in a real life research lab for the first time and to my relief she wasn’t put off by the sight of tonsils floating in a tube!

A tonsil freshly excised and delivered to the lab
A tonsil freshly excised and delivered to the lab

Today’s delivery of tonsils is not just amazing for my group’s research but is the result of hard work from many other people whom we sometimes neglect to mention.

Before we can collect any human tissue, even tissue which is usually destined for incineration through the hospital waste stream, we must give a detailed description of how we will use the tissue to check what we are doing is deemed ethical. This decision is made by a panel of experts and members of the public on a research ethics committee. Once permission has been granted (and numerous pieces of paper have been signed off) we then work with the wonderful surgeons at Sheffield’s hospitals to co-ordinate the collection of tissues.


Our collaborations with surgeons and other members of the clinical care team are crucial to make sure patients understand why we are collecting their tissue and what we will do with that tissue. They are, of course, given the opportunity to say if this is OK with them but as long as they sign the consent form we are able to collect their tissues. Without the agreement of these patients our research would come to a complete halt and their contribution to our research, while sometimes unseen, is greatly appreciated.

Once the tissue arrives in the lab it is a race against time to isolate cells from the tissue before they start to wither in the cold, but years of experience means we now have this process down to a fine art and amazingly we are able to get cells from the body to a petri dish in a couple of days. Our research is always focused on improving the health of future generations which means motivation is never difficult and it keeps us focused on the job in hand.

Tonsil cells growing in culture
A tonsil freshly excised and delivered to the lab

One of the best things about my job is working with students and seeing the excitement and passion they experience as they discover new things and first try their hand at research. It’s a brilliant reminder that what I get to do day in day out is a rare and exciting opportunity and it is great to be able to share that with my students.

Thanks for reading, Vanessa Hearnden
Course Director for Materials Science and Engineering (Biomaterials)

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