It’s just a door.
A simple, wooden door with a scattering of hazard warning stickers on it.
But this unassuming door, off a corridor in Swansea University, is actually the entrance to a world where extraordinary things are taking place.
Fancy stepping inside?
The hum of the refrigeration and freezer units hits me immediately, and the white coats hung neatly on their hooks on the wall are a sign that I am now in a lab.
But this isn’t just any ordinary lab. This is the home of the Diabetes Research Unit Cymru lab, part of Health and Care Research Wales.
There are rows of white benches running from one end of the room to the other, which remind me of science lessons at school.
The digital clock on the wall displays 11:02 in blue numbering, as I pull up a stool at one of the benches to chat with lab manager Dr Gareth Dunseath.
“We’re pretty unique here,” explained Gareth. “We offer what we call an ‘end-to-end’ service whereas a lot of labs will just do individual aspects of the process, like the analysis.
“The fact we can be involved right at the start to give advice on study set up and protocol writing, organise the logistics, do the analysis, report the results and get involved in the statistics side of things as well, makes us special.”
The lab is one of around 50 sites in the world that has Good Clinical Laboratory Practice (GCLP) accreditation. It shows commercial companies and other collaborators that Gareth and the team here – which is made up of lab director Professor Steve Luzio, quality facilitator Dr Charlotte Jones and research assistant Dom Bright – work to the highest standards.
“It’s not a big lab at all but we know this is just us,” said Gareth. “We know things are maintained properly and everyone who uses the lab is appropriately trained. You’re not going to turn up one day and find someone who you don’t know using your kit.
“We hold samples here that are very precious resources to study groups and I think they like the confidence that those samples are behind lock and key.
“I think more and more grant organisations require GCLP accreditation. A lot of research centres might have lab facilities but they don’t have the accreditation, so they come to us. And they keep coming back. We’re the lab of choice.”
I’m curious to take a closer look at everything so we get up and walk around the lab, starting at the far right of the room where the samples come in.
“We get samples coming in by post, which might just be single samples,” described Gareth, “and then we also get huge courier boxes arriving where we might have 500 samples coming in on dry ice!
”A lot of the samples we get in are from Wales and the UK but we do get some samples from Europe too. We’ve got a study going on at the moment where one of the centres is in Sweden.”
All the samples are logged on a paper system and given a barcode. Their location within a freezer is also logged online so Gareth knows exactly where a sample is at any given time.
“All of the freezers have temperature probes in them,” said Gareth. “We need to reassure people that these samples are being stored at the right temperature. The probes connect wirelessly to a website so we have a live temperature log that we can check at any time of the day.
“As part of that we have a text service, so if temperatures go out of range we’ll get a message telling us so we can keep an eye on what’s going on.
“A lot of places won’t have that. They’ll just have a little thermometer in the freezer or in the fridge and it tells them what the temperature is now. But if you measure it on Friday at 4 o’clock and you go home and you’ve left the door open, you don’t know until Monday when you come in and there’s a pool of water on the floor!
“Everything we do is all about the integrity of the samples, the integrity of the results, so being able to say ‘100% these results are spot on’ is really important.”
The lab is audited every two years to make sure the GCLP standards are being met. Gareth has recently had the auditors in and describes it as a “nervous time”.
To understand the significance, I compare it to a top restaurant trying to hang on to its Michelin star.
“Absolutely,” Gareth agreed. “We have a number of commitments where we’re supporting studies going on for about three or four years and obviously they’ve come to us because we have this accreditation, so it’s vital for us that we maintain that.”
Walking past the long benches, I notice lots of different machines, which Gareth tells me are used for processing and testing the samples. One of the machines is automated and can carry out five different tests on hundreds of samples at a time, which is essential when results are needed fast.
The type of work ranges from testing blood samples through to testing devices, like glucose monitors, which can be given to patients with type 1 diabetes.
“I think a lot of what we do, you can see an almost immediate effect,” said Gareth. “You can translate what you’re doing. For example, ‘in five years’ time I’m going to see that on the news’. That’s what interests me, that’s what drives me.
“Diabetes is such a big area as well so it’s not just something that’s going to benefit 100 people, we’re talking huge numbers globally.”
The lab is also involved in studies looking at new therapies, including one that’s made the news recently. Researchers are hoping to develop a new treatment for type 2 diabetes by using healthy people’s poo.
“We only see the blood samples at the end of that study so thankfully not the earlier stages!” laughed Gareth. “It’s great being involved in novel studies like this. Some don’t lead anywhere but this one may very well.”
On the next set of benches is what Gareth refers to as a “manufacturing area”, where kits are assembled and sent out to study centres and clinical trials units.
“We’re able to provide the tubes, the labels, postage boxes etc., so where we’re involved in multi-centre studies, we’re getting uniform samples back from each place. Essentially the samples are just put in a post box and they turn up here a couple of days later.”
Not everything in the lab is ‘science-like’ though. Something a little more familiar looking catches my eye.
“It’s actually my parents’ old microwave,” chuckled Gareth. “It’s very much genetics-based testing that goes on over here at this end of the lab. They have to make gels for some of those tests and the gels have to be heated up, so it’s just a very quick way of doing that.”
We walk back to the bench where we first started chatting and pull up a couple of stools. Gareth tells me about his hopes for the future of the lab.
“To build and grow what we’re doing. We’ve definitely become busier over the last few years. We’re involved in fewer studies but they’re bigger studies.
“If we can continue to grow this service and do more of our own research as well that would be ideal.”
The blue numbering on the digital clock tells me it’s now 11:59 and almost time to leave the lab. Before I go though I should let you know about the GCLP audit.
It’s good news. That ‘Michelin star’ can continue to hang proudly over the simple, wooden door with the hazard warning stickers on it, and Gareth can await the next batch of samples to arrive on dry ice.