What do you do with 90 million tissues samples when their home is closing? That’s the challenge faced by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, AFIP. What grew from an army medical museum into a consulting agency and one of the most complete pathology libraries in the world will be dismantled, and the fate of its historically and clinically valuable contents remains undecided.
The museum became increasingly important to the military during the two world wars, says Michael Rhode, an archivist and one of the few remaining AFIP employees, as soldiers came back with strange new diseases such as gas gangrene, in which bacteria produce tissue-killing toxins inside the body. The army decided it needed a central location to collect and learn from unique cases and in 1944, the museum established the Army Institute of Pathology. Five years later, the institute became the central laboratory of pathology for all branches of the armed forces, and adopted its current name.
In modern day flu scares, AFIP is where researcherers have turned.
And in the 1990s, Jeffery Taubenberger (then chair of the AFIP’s department of molecular pathology) and his colleagues began applying molecular techniques to the repository’s paraffin-embedded tissue blocks containing lung samples from soldiers killed by Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic2. From these samples, among others, they were able to analyse the genome of the virus and investigate why it was so deadly. They traced its virulence to multiple genes, and found that it triggers a dramatic inflammatory response.
image via Nature, credit: K. Kasmauski/Science Faction/Corbis