The heart of the machinery beats 20 meters below the earth's surface – probably the safest place in Dresden. The 200-square-meter vault room of the former Bundesbank branch houses 30 servers in a container-like room. "Down here used to store money and gold," says Thomas Schäfer and points to the aubergine-colored vault door, tons of heavy and one and a half feet thick. It could also appear in a James Bond movie. "Now this is the most important part of our lab, the servers, that's the data from the seven million potential donors whose DNA we've analyzed."
Image 2 Schäfer is one of the managing directors of the laboratory, the DKMS Life Science Lab. DKMS stands for the German Bone Marrow Donor File, a charitable organization founded in 1991 that is primarily committed to supporting stem cell donations in the fight against blood cancer. Worldwide, 900,000 people suffer from leukemia each year. Usually a stem cell donation or a bone marrow donation is the only treatment option. Only 30 percent of sufferers find a suitable donor within the family.
The DKMS helps to find an unrelated suitable donor. For this purpose, parts of the DNA are analyzed by people who register as potential donors, and special tissue characteristics of the immune system are determined: the "HLA profile". If these profiles are well matched, there will be no rejection between the recipient's body and the transplanted cells of the donor. The DKMS operates the largest database in Germany, there are 25 other smaller databases. So far, the organization has enabled more than 70,000 stem cell donations. A central registry in Ulm and one in the US store what you can tell about helpful donors that can be distributed worldwide.
However, in order for the donor and recipient to come together, certain data must first be obtained in a laborious laboratory process, special tissue characteristics of the donor. And this is how it works: If you are ready to register, DKMS will send you a set of sample sticks that looks like a cotton swab. This one rubs along the inside of the cheek for some time, so that mucous membrane cells adhere, and then sends it in – to Dresden special laboratory. This analyzes parts of the DNA from the cells and calculates tissue characteristics of the immune system, the HLA profile.
Hirschhausen Teaser HeftAt the beginning of the year, the entire laboratory with 150 employees moved to Dresden because the old rooms had become too small. And this project was not comparable to a normal company relocation at all. The task entrusted to Thomas Schäfer blew up everything that the 39-year-old had experienced so far.
For one and a half years he and his colleagues had been looking for the right location before finally planning the processes of reconstruction and relocation to the smallest detail for one and a half years. The former Bundesbank building, which is located near the Frauenkirche and right next to the police headquarters, now meets all requirements: more space, high ceilings, extremely stable floors, for the sometimes very heavy and up to 500,000 Euro expensive laboratory equipment, a strong power supply and a reliable, powerful internet connection to send huge amounts of data. "We can not afford a shaky Internet," says Schäfer. Now they're on the main line of the city, "right on the main fiber-optic cable." Creating the HLA profile is very compute-intensive, and we need a smooth data exchange. "
The major project relocation was a logistical show of strength. Schäfer had to work with a wide variety of companies: with laboratory equipment providers, architects, IT planners, construction companies, specialists in safety concepts or ventilation systems, with fire protection inspectors, electrical engineers or floor installers. Schäfer wrote letters: "Usually we help others, now we need your help …" It worked out in time to raise artisans and experts.
Now the new server room is reminiscent of a high-security area: red warning lights above the door, a special air conditioning system that keeps the room temperature cool so that the units do not overheat, an "oxygen reduction system" that shuts down air in the air to 14 percent – so hardly a fire can break out. A particle sensor also permanently checks the air and triggers the alarm as soon as something smolders or flits: "It's adjusted so finely, it even strikes when a co-worker smoked a cigarette outside and then enters the room," explains Schäfer , "If the servers broke, we would be out of action for months, not only storing donor HLA profiles, but also controlling the entire lab process."
The laboratory – these are numerous rooms on the ground floor with about 800 technical devices: The employees sort and encode every day about 5000 to 7000 letters with sent in probes from Germany, but also from Poland, Great Britain, the USA, Chile and India, countries, in which the DKMS has established locations. Afterwards, DNA sections are analyzed and the HLA profile is determined. Pipetting devices, robotic arms and analysis machines buzzing and buzzing. There are several elaborate steps and procedures until the DNA material is recovered and all essential data is on the server. Every day alone 1300 rubber gloves and 28,000 pipette tips are consumed. "We process 1.2 to 1.5 million sample inlets annually, making it the most efficient typing laboratory worldwide," says Schäfer.
With all the high technology and the many automated processes, the employees also experience surprises from time to time: Geoffrey Behrens, biochemist and specialist for laboratory technology, tells an anecdote: "We could not properly analyze the cell material from the sample stick." Just why? "The man was again written and asked for another rehearsal, again not enough, then finally came out, rubbing the stick not on the inside of the cheek, but on the outside of the skin on the cheek."
An archive with thousands of drawers
Finally, when the cells are broken and the DNA is released, when the tissue characteristics are determined and registered, handiwork is important again: in the second huge vault room of the building, a female employee puts on thick, lined work trousers and an anorak, gloves and cap. Then she enters the container-like refrigerator, eight meters long and four and a half feet wide, minus 20 degrees. Here, as in an archive, the DNA of every single registered donor stores. In a silvery wall of thousands of flat drawers she sorts barcoded plastic plates with tiny holes containing the DNA. The archive serves as security – for the future. If any questions arise, if something needs to be tested again. Or if there are new scientific findings on the matching of donor and recipient, which one wants to implement on certain samples.
Doctor Leukemia 15.20The sophisticated system of the whole apparatus has proven itself: "In Europe, the probability of finding a suitable donor, if you have blood cancer and need a stem cell donation," says Geoffrey Behrens. "In Germany it is 90 percent." Within minutes, a suitable potential donor can usually be determined through the targeted database query. Then this is contacted. Is he still ready to help? Further investigations follow.
All the effort, all the work ultimately serves the one, beautiful moment: the donor registers spit out a hit. A person suffering from cancer desperately needs help, and another, healthy person, anywhere in the world, can give it to him.
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