Hematology Case Study: A 69 Year Old Female with Breast Implants

Case History

A sixty nine year old female who underwent right breast reconstruction about 13 years ago due to breast cancer presents to the doctor office with right breast pain and right breast enlargement over the last two months. She has lost some weight and does not recall any trauma to this area. She had a textured saline implant. Examination reveals no definite palpable masses. MRI of right breast showed intact saline implant with moderate amount of fluid surrounding the implant within the intact external capsule. No adenopathy was noted. Right breast implant was removed and complete capsulectomy was performed.

Image 1. A. Section of breast capsule with rare atypical hyperchromatic cells (arrow). B. Cytospin preparation of the fluid surrounding the implant with numerous atypical lymphocytes. C. Cell block of the fluid with large atypical lymphocytes. D, E. Lymphocytes are positive for CD30 (image D) and negative for ALK-1 (image E). F. CD30 positive cells in the section of the implant.

Diagnosis

Breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

Discussion

Breast implant associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma is a provisional entity that is morphologically and immunophenotypically similar to ALK-negative anaplastic large cell lymphoma. It arises primarily in association with a breast implant. It is a very rare entity with an incidence of 1 in 500,000 to 3 million women with implants. Tumor cells may be localized to the seroma cavity or may involve pericapsular fibrous tissue. Sometimes it can form a mass lesion. Locoregional lymph node may be involved. The mean patient age is 50 years. Most patient presents with stage 1 disease, usually with peri-implant effusion. The mean interval from implant placement to lymphoma diagnosis is 10.9 years. There is no association with the type of implant. Histologic examination shows two different types of proliferations. In patients with seroma, the proliferation is confined to the fibrous capsule (“in situ” iALCL). However, the distribution of neoplastic lymphocytes could be heterogeneous with some cellular areas with numerous large pleomorphic cells of varying size and some fibrotic areas with rare atypical lymphocytes. It is beneficial to look at the seroma fluid in addition to capsule sections, because sometimes the neoplastic lymphocytes are predominantly present in fluid (as in our case). Patients presenting with tumor mass show more heterogeneous proliferations infiltrating surrounding tissues (“infiltrative” iALCL). They consists of either sheets are clusters of large neoplastic cells accompanied by a large number of eosinophils. By immunohistochemistry, the tumor cells are strongly positive for CD30. CD2 and CD3 are more often positive than CD5. CD43 is almost always expressed. Most cases are CD4 positive. The prognosis is very good in patients with disease confined to the capsule. The median overall survival is 12 years. However, patients with a tumor mass could have a more aggressive clinical outcome.

References

1. Swerdlow SH, Campo E, Harris NL, et al. WHO Classification of Tumours of Haematopoetic and Lymphoid Tissues (Revised 4th edition). IARC: Lyon 2017.

2. Jaffe, E , Arber, D, et al. Hematopathology (second edition) 2017.

-Junaid Baqai, MD, was born in Chicago, IL but spent most of his life in Karachi, Pakistan. He graduated from DOW Medical College in Pakistan and did his residency in anatomic and clinical pathology at Danbury Hospital, CT followed by hematopathology fellowship from William Beaumont Hospital, Michigan and oncologic-surgical pathology fellowship from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, New York. He currently serves as Medical Director of hematology, coagulation and flow cytometry at Memorial Medical Center and Medical Director of Laboratory at Taylorville Memorial Hospital.

Laboratory Test of Anti-Neutrophil Cytoplasmic Antibody in Sinonasal Inflammatory Disease

Case History

A 44 year old male with history of cocaine use presented with 1 year history of headache and progressive frontal lobe syndrome, including symptoms like apathy, personality changes, lack of ability to plan, poor working memory for verbal information or spatial information, Broca aphasia, disinhibition, emotional lability, etc. CT scan found extensive destruction of osteocartilaginous structures of the nasal cavity and MRI showed extensive edema of the frontal lobe. Biopsy showed chronic inflammation but negative for granulomatous inflammation. Patient’s CSF laboratory analysis was normal but ANCA was tested positive, in a P-ANCA pattern without MPO detectable. Patient was diagnosed as CIMDL. After stopping cocaine use, patient was doing better but still has mild frontal lobe syndrome.

Discussion

Anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA) are a group of autoantibodies that directed toward antigens expressed mainly in neutrophil granulocytes, such as proteinase 3 (RP3) and myeloperoxidase (MPO). The presence of ANCA is mainly associated with a distinct form of small vessel vasculitis, known as ANCA-associated vasculitis, but is also detected in other disease, like autoimmune hepatitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, ulcerative colitis, and other chronic inflammatory disease. The gold standard laboratory method to screen ANCA is indirect immunofluorescence assay (IFA or IIF), which qualitatively capture antibodies in serum/or plasma bound to fixed human neutrophil granulocytes.

Two form of ANCA-associated vasculitis, granulomatous with polyangiitis (GPA) and eosinophilic granulomatous with polyangiitis (EGPA), are systemic diseases that commonly associated with necrotizing granulomatous vasculitis. GPA has a primary involvement of the upper and lower respiratory tract and kidney. Autoantibodies to PR3 are found in 90% of active GPA cases, which generates a cytoplasmic-ANCA (C-ANCA) pattern on ANCA IFA test. EGPA is a rare form of systemic necrotizing vasculitis characterized by asthma and eosinophilia. A perinuclear-ANCA (P-ANCA) IFA pattern directing towards MPO antibody are often seen in EGPA cases.

Both GPA and EGPA may also present with sinonasal involvement, causing non-infectious inflammatory lesions of the sinonasal tract. Sinonasal inflammatory disease can also result from bacterial and fungal infections, or other non-infectious process, such as sarcoidosis, polychondritis, or obstruction. ANCA is detected in the majority of GPA and EGPA case, therefore it provides useful information in differential diagnosis of sinonasal inflammatory disease. Both GPA and EGPA are autoimmune diseases, corticosteroids and immunosuppressive agents are effective treatment.

Sinonasal inflammation can also been seen in a subset of patients with cocaine abuse, who normally present with midline destructive lesions, known as cocaine-induced midline destruction lesions (CIMDL). Long-term cocaine use has been associated with ischemia of mucosal tissue, cartilage and bone, and cocaine abuser using intranasal inhalation route can have midline deformity and septal perforation. Interestingly, ANCA are also found in a large portion of CIMDL, and in contrast to GPA or EGPA, ANCA in CIMDL are primarily directed against neutrophil elastase, generate a P-ANCA or atypical P-ANCA pattern, without detection of MPO. Therefore, ANCA serology testing could help the differentiation between CIMDL and GPA although these two can overlap clinically and histopathologically. Also, CIMDL does not respond well to immunosuppressive therapy and only consistent removal of stimuli (cocaine) can halt the disease process.

References

  1. Montone KT. Differential Diagnosis of Necrotizing Sinonasal Lesions. Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2015 Dec;139(12):1508-14. doi: 10.5858/arpa.2015-0165-RA.
  2. Trimarchi M, Bussi M, Sinico RA, Meroni P, Specks U. Cocaine-induced midline destructive lesions – an autoimmune disease? Autoimmun Rev. 2013 Feb;12(4):496-500. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2012.08.009. Epub 2012 Aug 24.
  3. Madani G, Beale TJ. Sinonasal inflammatory disease. Semin Ultrasound CT MR. 2009 Feb;30(1):17-24.
  4. Timothy R. Helliwell Non-infectious Inflammatory Lesions of the Sinonasal Tract. Head Neck Pathol. 2016 Mar; 10(1): 32–39.
Xin-small

-Xin Yi, PhD, DABCC, FACB, is a board-certified clinical chemist, currently serving as the Co-director of Clinical Chemistry at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Microbiology Case Study: A 24 Year Old Male with No Past Medical History Returning from Guatemala with Fevers, Myalgia, and Cough

Case History

A 24 year old male with no past medical history presented with fevers, myalgia, and cough following return from a 1-week trip to Guatemala where he spent significant time within caves. The patient described his cough as persistent, non-productive, and associated with mild shortness of breath at rest that significantly worsens with activity. In the emergency department, the patient was afebrile with a WBC of 10.2, Transaminitis, and chest X-ray showed diffuse reticular pattern. He underwent a bronchoscopy and BAL washout.

Laboratory Findings

Histoplasmosis Urine Antigen test came back positive.

Image 1. Fungal culture with white/tan, fluffy mold (growth at day 7).
Image 2. Scotch tape prep with tuberculate macroconidium. This mold was morphologically identified as Histoplasma capsulatum and sent to Mayo Laboratories for further confirmatory testing.

Discussion

Histoplasma capsulatum is an intracellular, thermally dimorphic fungus (grows as a yeast at body temperature/37°C in humans or culture media and as mold at 25°C in the environment/culture media). Histoplasma is found in soil, particularly in areas containing bird and bat droppings, such as caves. Within the United States Histoplasma in found in central and eastern states with a predominance in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. This fungus is also found in parts of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Infection with Histoplasma capsulatum causes significant morbidity and mortality worldwide. Upon inhalation of conidia, H. capsulatum transforms into the pathogenic yeast phase. This form replicates within macrophages that carry the yeast from the lungs to other organs. Histoplasmosis has three main forms:

  • Acute primary histoplasmosis which presents as a pneumonia with fever, cough, myalgia.
  • Chronic cavitary histoplasmosis which is characterized by pulmonary lesions that often resemble cavitary tuberculosis.
  • Progressive disseminated histoplamosis that spreads to infect many organs in immunocomprimised patients.

In the laboratory, culture of blood, tissue and respiratory specimens may be completed. In addition, a test for H. capsulatum antigen is sensitive and specific when simultaneous serum and urine specimens are tested. It is important to note that cross-reactivity with other fungi (Coccidioides immitis, Blastomyces dermatitidis, Paracoccidioides brasiliensis, Penicillium marneffei) has been identified.

Growth on fungal culture shows white/tan, fluffy mold that turns to brown to buff with age. The organism may also produce wrinkled, moist, or heaped yeast-like colonies that are soft and cream when grown at 37°C on certain media. Scotch tape preparation of the mold form shows tuberculate macroconidia, a diagnostic structure of Histoplasma capsulatum. The mycelia are septate and produce microconidia and macroconidia. Yeast forms of Histoplasma capsulatum are small (2 to 4 μm) and reproduce by budding. These budding forms may be seen on histology specimens. A commercially available DNA probe can be performed on culture material to confirm identification.

Patients with mild-moderate histoplasmosis can often have resolution of their symptoms without treatment. Those with more moderate-severe disease require antifungal agents including amphotericin B or itraconazole.

-Nicole Mendelson, MD is a 1st year Anatomic and Clinical Pathology resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

-Christi Wojewoda, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont.

Global Health Narratives Interview Series: Meet Nichole Baker

Nichole Baker, PA, works at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, Colorado as a Pathologists Assistant. Nichole started working as a volunteer with Mbarara University of Science Technology (MUST) in 2017 through the existing partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital Pathology department– she responded to an advertisement looking for pathology volunteers that Dr. Drucilla Roberts had placed in a pathology journal. She decided to visit the laboratory and see in what ways she could help. In total, she has visited three times, and in that time, has accomplished incredible things! What was particularly impressive to me is that Nichole single-handedly solved a very complex problem in the MUST laboratory. In fact, it was this same problem that many people (including myself!), had attempted to solve and could not find the means to do so! Not only did she implement a solution to the problem, but she did it in just two weeks!

Read on to hear from Nichole about her experience making positive changes in her global community. I guarantee you will be inspired by her work, her enthusiasm, and her can-do attitude!

Q: Nichole, I know that you recently returned from Uganda, and you were able to team up with the pathology staff at MUST to make some major changes and implemented a solution to a major problem. Can you tell me about your project?

A: It started with realizing from my two prior visits to the anatomic pathology lab at MUST that the laboratory had a faulty internal tracking system for cases. This had two consequences: The first is that the case turn-around time has been very difficult to track. This even results in occasional cases being lost entirely. The second is that there is no repository of cases to be able to easily conduct research.

What I decided to do was build a free computer program that could accession the cases, track them, generate a pathology report, and give a report of turn-around-time. Not having a computer science background myself, I contacted a friend who connected me with a software engineer in Denver, Colorado. He helped guide me in what would be feasible to accomplish and helped me find a pro-bono programmer based in Belize named Maurice, who had some background in healthcare IT. We started building the system less than a month away from my departure to Uganda.

My goal was to work with the laboratory staff to build a program based around their needs, for which I needed to be there in person to clearly identify – I set out on my third trip in March 2019, this time for two weeks. Maurice and I built a cloud-based tracking program and every day, we would try it out in the laboratory. Day by day, issues would arise, such as the need to add a sign-out function, general localization changes, or adding a timestamp for a particular function. Fortunately for me, Maurice and I had a substantial time difference which really worked to our advantage. I would try the system out during the day and then email Maurice a report that he would just be waking up to. He was able to work in Belize while we were asleep in Uganda, and when I returned to the lab the next day, the program had been updated with the changes. This allowed for rapid progress and the pathology staff grew more and more excited to use the system as it improved. So, day by day, we made the program better and better.

Q: What were some of the unique challenges that you faced when implementing the program?

A: Originally, we had planned to use a laptop with boosted RAM to act as a local server, but the network in the hospital wasn’t functioning as needed. On-site we realized we’d need to shift to an internet server and to do so we had to improve the internet access in the laboratory in order to run the program –this was difficult because IT progress can be slow in Uganda.

Another example that is unique to this setting is the difficulty we had in generating unique patient identifiers in the registration system. In the US, two patient identifiers are required for each sample, and that is easy to obtain because everyone knows their date of birth. In Uganda, things are not as clear and straightforward. We might only have the village they live in, or a phone number. We had to look to see what items were most consistently reported and use those.

Image 1. Sample patient intake page. Patients can be uniquely identified and stored for future visits.
Image 2. Sample case information page. All aspects of the case can be stored and easily retrieved, including IHC performed, and diagnosis codes.

Q: How are you financing the data storage and internet?

A: All fees and costs associated with the program were raised by a small charity organization I started in 2017 called “Path of Logic” which has 501c3 status, making any donations tax deductible. With the funds raised, a shared laboratory laptop was purchased. We are using a cloud-based system that charges based on storage space. Right now, the storage need is low because reports are stored as PDFs, but we may need to expand in the future. The internet connection is also a low expense, as it’s simply a backup modem that’s used when the university internet is not functioning.

Q: It’s now been two months since you rolled out the program in the lab. What results have you seen from that?

A: Once we got going, we have been able to identify where the delays were in processing the cases. After I returned back to the US, Maurice and I continued to work on small issues remotely, such as single vs. double click preferences and those sorts of things.

So far, 421 cases have been registered in the system. The average turnaround time is 12.5 days. We still have a lot of work to go, but this is the first we’ve been able to track this number. Many of the cases that were started in the weeks following my departure were not signed out, but as the team sees the value in the system, the more accurate that average will be, allowing adjustments to be made accordingly. 

We also added in the ability to assign ICD codes to the final diagnosis to allow for a way to categorize the cases to make the diagnosis searchable. Now we are going to be able to generate epidemiological data. This feature is not yet in use by the pathology team, but we are hopeful that as the system becomes more routine, this will be the next step to incorporate.

Image 3. Sample Final Pathology Report, stored as a PDF.

Q: What future impact do you think this program might have?

A: In addition to being able to easily track cases, build pathology reports, generate icd codes for researching cases more easily, we also hope that this will eventually result in increased funding for pathology services in Uganda. Right now, the money allocated from the Ugandan Ministry of Health is going towards HIV, malaria, and cancer treatment – but not for diagnostics. The Department of Education allows some funds for Pathology, but only about 30% of what is needed. Part of the reason why is that until now, there has been no way to quantify the number of cancer cases. With our program, we will be able to generate that data to show real numbers when lobbying for increased funds.


-Dana Razzano, MD is a Chief Resident in her third year in anatomic and clinical pathology at New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center and will be starting her fellowship in Cytopathology at Yale University in 2020. She was a top 5 honoree in ASCP’s Forty Under 40 2018 and was named to The Pathologist’s Power List of 2018. Follow Dr. Razzano on twitter @Dr_DR_Cells.

Hematopathology Case Study: A 76 Year Old Man with Lymphadenopathy

Case History

76 year old man with a history of chronic lymphocytic leukemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma (CLL/SLL) with new anterior mediastinal mass and increasing lymphadenopathy.

Lymph Node Biopsy

H&E

Diagnosis

Tissue sections show a diffuse atypical lymphoid infiltrate that completely effaces the normal nodal architecture. The infiltrate is composed of numerous small lymphocytes with round to mildly irregular nuclei, clumped chromatin, inconspicuous nucleoli and scant cytoplasm. There are also expanded pale areas that contain intermediate sized cells with more open chromatin and distinct single to multiple nucleoli. These cells are most consistent with prolymphocytes/paraimmunoblasts and form the proliferation centers characteristic of CLL/SLL. Occasional centroblastic-type B-cells are noted within these proliferation centers. In addition, there are scattered single to multinucleated cells that have irregular nuclear membranes with pale, vesicular chromatin and prominent inclusion-like, eosinophilic nucleoli. These cells morphologically resemble Hodgkin cells, Reed-Sternberg cells, mummified forms and other variants. These large cells are more evident in areas with a histiocyte rich background and around foci of necrosis. Occasionally, apoptotic bodies and mitotic figures are seen.

 Immunohistochemical studies show that the vast majority of the small-intermediate lymphocytes express B-cell markers CD20 (dim) and PAX5 and co-express CD5 and CD23 (subset). This is consistent with a background of CLL/SLL. The large atypical cells are positive for CD30, PAX5 and CD20 (variable). CD3 highlights numerous scattered background small T-cells, which are increased in the areas with the large cells. In situ hybridization for Epstein Barr viral RNA (EBER ISH) is mainly staining the large atypical cells. By Ki-67, the proliferation fraction is overall increased (40%) with increased uptake by the large atypical cells.

The morphologic and immunophenotypic findings are consistent with involvement by the patient’s known small lymphocytic lymphoma/chronic lymphocytic leukemia (SLL/CLL) with aggressive morphological features. The aggressive features include expanded proliferation centers and an elevated Ki-67 proliferative index (40%). Additionally there are histiocyte/T-cell rich areas composed of multiple EBV positive large atypical cells with morphologic and immunophenotypic features compatible with Hodgkin/ Reed-Sternberg cells. These areas are most in keeping with evolving classic Hodgkin lymphoma. Sheets of large cells indicative of large cell transformation are not seen, although increased scattered large centroblastic-type B cells are present.

Discussion

Lymph node involvement by CLL/SLL will typically show a diffuse proliferation of small lymphocytes with effacement of the normal nodal architecture.  The small lymphocytes have round nuclei, clumped chromatin and scant cytoplasm. Scattered paler areas known as proliferation centers are characteristic of this entity. The proliferation centers are composed of a mixture of cell types including small lymphocytes, prolymphocytes and paraimmunoblasts. Prolymphocytes are small to medium in size with relatively clumped chromatin, whereas paraimmunoblasts are larger cells with round to oval nuclei, dispersed chromatin, eosinophilic nucleoli and slightly basophilic cytoplasm. Some cases show increased and enlarged proliferation centers with a higher proliferation rate. This must be distinguished from large cell transformation.1

Aggressive features of CLL/SLL include proliferation centers that are broader than a 20x field or becoming confluent. An increased Ki-67 proliferation >40% or >2.4 mitoses in the proliferation centers can also portend a more aggressive course. These cases tend to have worse outcomes than typical CLL/SLL and better outcomes than cases that have undergone Richter transformation to diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). Transformation to DLBCL occurs in 2-8% of patients with CLL/SLL. Less than 1% of patients with CLL/SLL develop classic Hodgkin lymphoma (CHL). In order to diagnose CHL in the setting of CLL/SLL, classic Reed-Sternberg cells need to be found in a background appropriate for CHL, which includes a mixed inflammatory background. The majority of these CHL cases will be positive for EBV.1

Richter’s transformation is defined as an aggressive evolution of CLL. While the most common type of transformation is to a high-grade B-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, other histological transformations have been described. This includes CHL, lymphoblastic lymphoma, hairy cell leukemia and high-grade T-cell lymphomas. The prognosis for patients who present with transformation to CHL is poor compared to de novo CHL.2 A large study from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center described 4121 patients with CLL/SLL and found that only 18 patients or 0.4% developed CHL. The median time from CLL to CHL diagnosis was 4.6 years. Fourteen of the patients received chemotherapy. The overall response rate was 44% with a complete response rate of 19%. The median overall survival was 0.8 years and all patients eventually died from disease recurrence or progressive disease.3 This dismal prognosis is similar to patients with Richter transformation to DLBCL and much worse than patients with de novo CHL, which is curable in >85% of cases.1

References

  1. Swerdlow SH, Campo E, Harris NL, et al. WHO Classification of Tumours of Haematopoetic and Lymphoid Tissues (Revised 4th edition). IARC: Lyon 2017.
  2. Janjetovic S, Bernd HW, Bokemeyer C, Fiedler W. Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a rare variant of Richter’s transformation in chronic lymphocytic leukemia: A case report and review of the literature. Mol Clin Oncol. 2016;4(3):390–392.doi:10.3892/mco.2016.727.
  3. Tsimberidou, AM, O’Brien, S and Kantarjian, HM, et. al. Hodgkin transformation of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Cancer. 2006;107(6).doi.org/10.1002/cncr.22121.

Chelsea Marcus, MD is a Hematopathology Fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA. She has a particular interest in High-grade B-Cell lymphomas and the genetic alterations of these lymphomas.

Fecal Transplants in the News

An article posted today at The Atlantic discusses fecal transplants and FDA regulation. Dr. Colleen Kraft (co-author of a paper on fecal transplant protocols that appeared in Lab Medicine) is quoted in the article, and it’s worth a read.

Slide Review and You

Welcome back everybody!

Last month, I wrote about some projects I did while rotating through the pathology program at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. This month I’m in a more clinical setting with a hematology/oncology clerkship at Northwell’s Staten Island University Hospital. But, over the past few months of rotations (and arguably a lot longer before medical school) I’ve been noticing a part of laboratory medicine which often intersects with our clinical colleagues at the bedside. I’ve told you about the pitfalls and successes in the relationships between surgeons and anatomic pathologists before, where frozen sections are critical and time is of the essence. And we’ve all seen collaboration between the bench and bedside before—think microbiology and infectious disease, blood bank and literally everyone, etc. Still, one collaborative effort sort of happens behind the shadows, behind phone calls and lab reports, and sometimes with no communication at all! So, what kind of vigilante medicine am I talking about? Who is this Batman of medicine? It’s just our friends in hematology.

When you’re working the hematology bench in the lab, it’s pretty commonplace for a physician on a hematology service to call and ask for a peripheral smear to review. Many times, it’s for the purpose of teaching residents, fellows, or medical students but more often than not it’s a confirmatory exercise. See, when that hematologist asks to review a slide, she’s probably coming down to the lab to look at the morphology of red cells and white cells to help in their differential diagnosis. They might have a patient with a suspected thalassemia or hemoglobinopathy and, before starting the full work up of lab tests, just want to see if there are any RBC morphology traits or target cells that stand out. Thrombocytopenia? Let’s make sure there’s no platelet clumping. Maybe they’ve got a patient with some kind of liver or kidney pathology and are on the hunt for acantho- or echinocytes. Or better yet, someone went hiking, there’s an infectious etiology on their differential—let’s go hunting for babesia, malaria, oh or even erlichia!

Image 1. Here’s a few examples of three parts of a patient’s smear that are contributory to a particular pathology in vivo. Think you know what it is? I bet you’d be surprised…not all that hyper-segments is a B12/Folate deficiency. But technically it is; read about cobalamin and homocysteine pathology in a neonatal patient here: http://www.bloodjournal.org/content/128/21/2584 (Source: Blood 2016)

I know what you’re thinking. Wait—that’s our job as medical laboratory scientists; our literal job. Our instruments, that we validate, and correlate, and make sure work fantastically give us flags. We investigate those flags and look at smears ourselves! We collaborate with other lab techs, and with our pathologist colleagues and send out final lab results with all kinds of helpful information: including platelet clumping, microorganisms, RBC and WBC morphology, and loads more. What gives?

Hold on to your lab coats. I’ll get there in a minute.

Slide review and differential training in medical school and residency

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Image 2. There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… the bench tech working in hematology. The one who went to school for this? Medical school and residency are starkly devoid of any in-depth, comprehensive learning for differentials.

A Differential, Differential

So let me address the issue I brought up: why do hematologists come down to the lab to look at the slides themselves, when perfectly capable BOC certified, degree-holding medical laboratory scientists and pathologists sign out validated differentials? It might not happen this way at all hospitals, but I think the answer is a simple two-part problem.

First, as with the many things I’ve learned in medical school, one of the lab-centric pieces of information that is well understood is that, well, no one really knows what the lab does and how it operates. Virtually nobody knows the depth and breadth of the testing that pathologists manage, let alone the scientific precision and accuracy that instrument validation requires. Learning that MLS techs are certified, can hold graduate degrees, and even do their own research is often surprising to most of our clinical colleagues. And—I will tell you for a fact—that pathology and laboratory testing methodology is not covered in medical school the way you might think. Pathology is more of a class of distinguishing the identifying details of a disease, not understanding the interdisciplinary diagnostic teamwork that goes into those CBC index results on a computer screen on the clinical floors.

Second, hematologists are specialists just like any other practicing clinician. They know their stuff! They manage patient diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up with the most up to date literature, national cancer guidelines, and anything else available to better their patients’ outcomes. Despite the notes in the CBC results that there are numerous macrocytes with hypersegmented neutrophils, or 3+ schistocytes reported in a manual differential—seeing is believing. It helps to see the slide yourself and get a feel for the disease “state” with your own eyes. Moreso, it could be a learning opportunity. It’s well within a clinicians’ scope to come down and look at a peripheral smear, I actually encourage it. But it should come with a few caveats…I’ll get to those too…

I-CARE

One of the places I was proud to hang my lab coat was actually my first job as an assistant lab technician in the blood bank at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Before I got my MLS and way before grad school or med school, I was a blood bank “expediter.” Super fancy title, but all I did was make sure specimens were logged in and blood products were up to par with labels on their way out. Clerical but critical! (Let me have this, please…haha) Anyway, part of the culture at that hospital has stayed with me all these years. I’ve talked before about culture and the way it permeates an institution’s practice like at the Mayo Clinic, but for my first foray into clinical work their acronym was clutch: I CARE.

  • I for innovation
  • C for collaboration
  • A for accountability
  • R for respect and
  • E for excellence

Why am I telling you this? No, there are no royalties. I just think it’s an easy way to remind ourselves about the meaning of interdisciplinary medicine and they way we should work together across specialties, and from bench to bedside. When we incorporate those values into our work for the purpose of improving patient care and outcomes, everyone wins. In this case, effective utilization of resources tells us that peripheral slide review means different things to different people. In the setting of hematologic work-ups, flags and review at the bench can signal something to the clinician which could spark a conversation with the pathologist. All parts contributing to a whole of patient care. Vigilante medicine is bad news. Collaboration is key.

One place I was lucky enough to be a part of this interdisciplinary collaboration was Swedish Covenant Hospital. One of the hematology physicians would routinely call me and ask to look as peripheral smears down in the lab, often as a group with med students, residents, and fellows. I’d throw the image of his patients’ slides on a large flat screen and go over what certain traits meant with regard to morphology and identification from the lab setting. Dr. Cilley would add what this all meant clinically and discuss treatment algorithms and next steps. That was collaboration at it’s finest: lab tech working with pathologists, clinicians working with the lab, and patient’s benefiting from all of it.

Video 1. ASCP’s 2015 Membership Video. I was super thrilled to be part of this video back in 2015 after winning the Midwest regional ASCP member of the year. If you’re bored enough to make it about 40 seconds into the video, that was my actual desk where Dr. Cilley and his residents would come to discuss patient slides. I would talk to them about morphology and hematologic clues with digital hardware and software to make it clear in group settings, rather than taking turns at the scope. Good times. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86fBRXGrZFo)
Video 2. Dr. Jeffrey Cilley talks about treating cancer as a “team approach” and he’s right. Hematology/Oncology to patient. Lab to clinician. Bench to bedside. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0waKLyT1Dg)

Teamwork makes the dream work

About those caveats for collaboration I mentioned earlier… Let me put it briefly: it’s well within the scope of a clinician to come over to the laboratory and get some information on their patient’s lab results/testing. But why not consider the following:

  • If a physician calls to review a smear, offer to go over it with them. Likewise, to our clinical friends: if you go to the lab for a slide don’t be batman—ask the tech what they think!

Experienced techs are one of the hospital’s most valuable resources. Some folks I’ve worked with have been looking at slides longer than I’ve been using my eyes at all! They’ll save you and your residents the time when those terrifying intracellular microorganisms are really just overlying platelets. I mean, they’ve got a cute halo.

  • If you need help, just ask. This applies to everyone.

Talking with the tech about the slide is great start, but there’s more resources in the lab than most people know what to do with! Clinical physicians: check the shelves around the hematology microscope. Stuck on something? Find a CAP atlas or a proficiency survey booklet guide. Easy to read. Techs and pathologists: have someone who constantly comes down for slide review despite your immaculate and detailed SOPs on CBC results reporting? Have a quick chat about the work that goes into resulting those diffs—you might even improve your heme TAT, who knows?

  • If it’s well within the right of a physician to leave the unit and see a patient’s slide, logic says that maybe, just maybe, it should be okay for a pathologist to leave the lab and see a patient at the bedside!

Hospitals are full of never-ending rounding white coats, all asking patients questions, and all contributing specialty notes to their charts. But its not only to prevent patients from getting a decent nap. We’re all parts of a large interdisciplinary patient team. A recent Medscape survey found that somewhere around 3% of pathologists see patients, routinely! Got an interesting case in the lab, someone who’s part of lots of tumor boards, someone with an interesting case to write up, or even someone who nobody knows exactly what’s going on with? Try walking over to 4 south and have a conversation with Mr. Jones; it might help. At least he’ll know how many people are working on his care team!

The bottom line: we’re in this together, and like the flag on the ASCP ship says, we’re Stronger Together. Innovation, collaboration, accountability, respect, and excellence are—and should be—simple cornerstones of clinical medicine that translate across every discipline. When we share information and expertise, everyone gets better at what they do.

Bonus Image. This was a hard picture to take. Usually, a quick hematologist just comes down to see if there are any real schistocytes. But, after reading a draft of this post, BatDoc’s cool with chatting about red cell indices and automated flow cytometry methods in auto-diff validation. That’s the hero we deserve, and the one healthcare needs! (Source: https://gunaxin.com/batman-doesnt-police-stop-visiting-children-hospital)

Thanks for reading!

See you next time!

–Constantine E. Kanakis MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BS in Molecular Biology and Bioethics and then Rush University with an MS in Medical Laboratory Science. He is currently a medical student actively involved in public health and laboratory medicine, conducting clinicals at Bronx-Care Hospital Center in New York City.