Pathology – behind the scenes…
Upon telling people that I work in the Department of Pathology, I can often tell what they think – they imagine me all dressed in white, performing autopsies on dead bodies and reporting back to police force about the cause of death, CSI-style…
In fact, I’m rarely dressed in white and – Thank God – I don’t get to see many dead bodies. So, what do I do then?
Pathology – the true story
Pathology is a branch of medical science primarily concerning the examination of organs, tissues, and bodily fluids in order to make a diagnosis of disease. Even though this is a citation from Wikipedia, it is still true. The discipline that gives rise to CSI’s superstars (and they are not realistic, just a side note…) is called Forensic Medicine, and that is not the same as Pathology.
Two types of “Pathologists”
Pathologists at the hospital do perform autopsies, but they mostly look at biopsies or a smear of body fluids, such as blood, from patients. Their aim is to make a correct diagnosis. They identify and characterize diseases such as cancer or inflammatory disorders. By studying the cells in detail, the pathologists cooperate with the clinicians in their diagnostic work. For example, the pathologist’s examination and classification of tumor cells is an important factor that helps the clinicians decide on the treatment that this particular cancer patient will receive.
And it gets more complicated. Behind the scenes, basic researchers in the field of pathology try to figure out mechanisms of how diseases develop in the first place. I am one of them. We want to know what drives diseases, and what parameters we can use to define and diagnose and monitor them better. And finally we want to find out how they could be treated.
To understand the disease you need to understand “health”
In order to be able to accomplish all this, we need to know when we are looking at a disease. This, however, means that we first have to define what a healthy state is. We need to understand how the healthy state is maintained, and which components play critical roles in balancing out any disturbances.
Having a background in nutritional science, I am particularly interested in organs of the digestive tract. However, once we have figured out a basic principle for a particular organ, we can try to see if the findings hold true for other organs.
I look at pieces of more or less healthy gut tissue from (mostly alive!) people, and try to define what I see. In principle, I ask four types of questions: What cells are there? What function might they have? Do they change in cases of disease? What role might they play in keeping us healthy?
Answering these questions is the prerequisite for everything we try to find out about diseases, including the development of treatment strategies.
Not so bad, I think.