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The growing importance of biobanks cannot be overstated and is increasing the pressure placed on these facilities to deliver larger quantities of high-quality samples from their repositories. Facilities that are still using spreadsheets, paper records, and handwritten labels on storage tubes are at a disadvantage. In order to be more efficient, compliant, and portable, an increased emphasis is being put on more effective and robust sample and data management to ensure integrity.

Biobanks have also begun to leverage innovative technologies. Informatics systems have kept pace and other technologies have advanced enough that, once implemented, they can exponentially increase productivity in many parts of laboratory work.

In September, GEN presented a webinar, sponsored by Genohm, a part of Agilent, with presenters Jean-Guillaume Baumann, field application specialist, Genohm; Paul Lomax, product manager, TTP Labtech; and Oscar Vall, technical sales manager, Bluechiip. These industry specialists discussed the major impacts sample and workflow management systems have, and how integrating these systems with other technologies, such as freezers and state-of-the-art labeling and tracking technology, can create even greater value.

As biobanks collect, process, and store samples for R&D on disease diagnosis and treatment, maintenance of the integrity of samples and sample data is imperative. Decades ago, biobanks simply stored samples in a freezer and recorded the sample data in a paper notebook. Eventually, robotics lent automation improvements for sample processing, storage, and retrieval, and in the 1980s computerization gave rise to data management and search engines for sample retrieval. With the entry of the worldwide web, data sharing, virtual and open-science biobanks, and the concept of databanks emerged.

Databanks contain information about the samples such as storage location, quality, amount and cost, automation usage, characterizing metadata, sample type, sample concentration, volume, sample and patient history, and compliance data for regulatory authorities, in addition to permission management, audit trails, and consent files.

Biobanks need to be sustainable long term. Already two billion samples are in storage worldwide with approximately 300 M added annually. Increased sample numbers demand increased productivity. Key performance indicators include sample utilization, sample quality, and total cost of sample ownership. Bad quality samples can result for many reasons, such as loss of ID, and temperature fluctuations that affect the cells.

Automation and Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) are indispensable. Module-based SLIMS from Genohm is an integrated, browser-based LIMS and Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN) with comprehensive workflow management capabilities in a singular software platform. Designed to be flexible and configurable, SLIMS shortens project cycle times. Modules include sample management, workflow management, an ELN, and a dashboard widget, along with a full permission management system.

Samples, locations, and integrated analyses results are traceable for audit trails. Activity organization also manages lot reception, product orders, and laboratory inventory. Data can be imported, updated, and exported, and process workflows edited in a secure controlled environment.

With flexible installation options that deploy to either a virtual or physical server, SLIMS integrates with third-party systems, including instruments and software, using three APIs to facilitate the transfer of sample sheets, data, and results between sequencing and QC machines, analytical instruments, other LIMS, bioinformatics platforms, and more.

Storage systems

Temperature is a critical parameter in a sample’s cold chain custody; fluctuations can impact sample quality. TTP Labtech’s arktic® automated -20°C or -80°C storage systems hold up to 140,000 samples and use 2D barcodes to log and track samples; no other potentially sensitive information is stored. LIMS systems, such as SLIMS, can be used to manage sample metadata and to provide pick lists to the storage devices.

Samples for storage are first purged at -20°C to remove moisture and then transferred using robust pneumatic transport. The 2D barcode is scanned and then registered against the location in the freezer. For retrieval, selected samples are pre-sorted into an empty pipe; pre-sorting overnight for morning retrieval maximizes efficiency. Once requested, the samples are delivered to a rack at a rate of 10 samples/minute, and the LIMS inventory updated.

Installation is quick and does not require infrastructure changes. In addition, storage modules can be interconnected for expandable capacity, as needed. Using a simple pick list through an interconnected LIMS, tubes can be retrieved from any of the storage modules and delivered to a single rack placed in a remote location. Automated picking avoids temperature excursions that occur when freezer doors are opened, especially during cherry picking expeditions.

The arktic system can improve workflow throughput and consistency. Processed samples can be sent directly to the biobank from a small unit called the connect ac via the pneumatic transport system, minimizing the time to bank the samples, reducing manual handling errors, and ensuring sample integrity.

Futureproofing biobanks

Today, most biobanks are opting for identifying samples with multiple methods to guarantee ID integrity in the harsh -80°C or ultralow -196°C temperatures. Temperature variations that pass predetermined thresholds influence sample quality. Plus, frost build-up greatly reduces label legibility; often a tube must be momentarily warmed, wasting time and contributing to temperature excursions.

Many biobanks still use handwritten labels that are gamma resistant and cryosafe but can be difficult to read, especially if frost covered, and are error prone. Barcode labels reduce errors but, as with all labels, they are prone to peeling, may get scratched and become illegible when rubbing against other samples or frost, and tend to degrade over time. Electronic RFID tags negate the effects of frost and provide non-visual ID but are limited to -40°C.

A fourth option is Bluechiip cryotechnology, a unique patented MEMS technology combining secure wireless tracking with integrated temperature sensing for extreme environments. MEMS labels are gamma resistant, cryosafe, provide non-visual ID, have on-board temperature sending, and reduce human error. The MEMS chips are wireless, multi-format, and customizable. They can be embedded in any consumable and have different form factors application dependent.

Bluechiip also provides single-point, multi-point, or mobile readers to scan rack IDs and the vials within. Sample manager software and the central database acts as a bridge to a higher LIMS system, such as SLIMS. A range of consumables is available along with tags to identify the storage hierarchy. Readers and accessories are fully compatible with, and complement, barcode systems when frost is an issue.

View the full recorded webinar and see a demonstration of SLIMS.