“Biobanks are expected to play an important role both within traditional pharmaceutical research and in long-term community-based studies,” say Simon Sheard, technical sales manager at RTS Life Science (www.rtslifescience.com). “Industrial-quality robotics are critical in biobanking applications where there is often only a single opportunity to collect and process that sample.”
Biomaterials can cover a wide range of sample types. Pharmaceutical companies operating biorepositories may store tumor/specific tissue samples for particular studies, whereas biorepositories, such as the U.K. Biobank and the HUNT Biobank in Norway, collect, process, and store blood samples from members of the general public for future research. While blood can be collected, dried, and stored easily at room temperature, there are limitations on the subsequent uses for the collected samples. One alternative is to extract the DNA from whole blood and store this at -20ºC. However, this is an expensive and time-consuming process.
RTS combines the Assay Platform™ technology developed for screening applications with vision technology to create a fully automated system capable of centrifuging containers of blood, identifying the heights of the various fractions, and generating liquid-handling protocols to accurately aspirate the various fractions and dispense them into suitable formats for future storage.
This technology, currently going through the final stages of testing at customer sites, is capable of accurate processing at 10–20 times the speed of a laboratory scientist and offers all the usual advantages of automation, including improved sample tracking, ability to process at low temperature, improved safety, and full and automatic data integration with the client’s LIMS system, Sheard says.
A second RTS biobanking application at Bristol University in the U.K. gives researchers a ready supply of genomic DNA. On receipt of a sample, it is “immortalized” and stored. When needed, a small collection of cells is removed from storage and “grown-up,” Sheard says.
“Collecting many different genotypes will help to explain biological pathways and speed up the identification of new substances that might lead to personalized medicine,” says Dietmar Reisch, Ph.D., product manager at REMP (www.remp.com).
“But those new methods are extremely sensitive to differences in sample quality. Recently, it has been shown that proteins in plasma that undergo multiple freeze/thaw cycles exhibit severe damage as quickly as the second cycle. However, plasma proteins stored at –70°C for up to four years showed no significant protein degradation. Limiting freeze/thaw cycles therefore seems more important to maintaining the integrity of the plasma proteome than degradation caused by long-term storage.”
Pfizer (www.pfizer.com) is taking advantage of an automated, –80°C sample-store, Dr. Reisch says. Samples can easily be traced and will be collected from robots 24/7. Researchers can identify samples of patients that belong to a group of interest within seconds by searching the database with predefined filters and can arrange those samples for ready use in an experiment without reformatting steps. Experiments can be done on demand. Sample integrity is improved, which allows researchers to compare datasets that might be separated by years. The ability to reuse expensive samples will help to save a lot of money during various research approaches.
Dr. Reisch believes that the next generation of biostorage solutions will be much more compact; operate at –20°C and –80°C at the same time, if needed; minimize thaw/freeze cycles; save energy costs compared to standard freezers; and be scalable, even if the customer wants to expand the store after several years.
The controlled environment provides higher sample-quality that will reduce costs during the research phases of drug development and enable biobanking on a worldwide level because experiments will be more accurate and reproducible, Dr. Reisch concludes.
“With the shift from HTS to HCS and consequentially the focus on studies from biochemical assays to cell-based studies, libraries for storing biological material are in increasing demand,” notes Stefan Betz, product manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific (www.thermofisher.com). “One area of focus is the identification of targets involved in a disease pathway.”
Thermo Fischer’s BioBank™ stores biological samples at –80°C for applications such as cell-based assays; bacterial clones; and protein, DNA, and RNA libraries. BioBank holds thousands of samples in a range of configurations. A rack-design system enables the location of the robotics in an ambient temperature, isolated from the ultralow temperature that can cause mechanical failures. Its CO2 backup protects samples for up to 12 hours during power outages.
Ensuring sample integrity during long-term storage is a critical element of success for many research organizations, Betz says. Because BioBank is a stand-alone unit, sample storage/retrieval and preventative maintenance do not compromise sample integrity during long-term storage.
At the Harvard Medical School Institute for Proteomics, BioBank enables the distribution of small and large sets of clones to researchers with custom orders. A tube-picking system allows for an experiment-driven array of plasmid clones in a microtiter plate format that will enable customers to use the arrayed samples directly in their experiment.
“BioBank enables drug discovery processes that use sensitive, biological samples to be automated in a flexible, high-throughput capacity,” Betz states. “Samples can be easily selected from the -80° environment, thawed under controlled conditions, and presented to external automation for processing in the drug discovery process of interest. This step in itself improves the quality of the data obtained in subsequent steps while avoiding sample degradation.”