More research! More research means more samples. This in turn calls for better sample management, which continues to challenge the scientific community and its service providers. Biobanks and biorepository providers are constantly refining and adopting more stringent sample management systems to match the needs of researchers. For the sake of those who rely on “biobankers,” it might be worthwhile to ask, “Where have we been, and where are we going?”
Most sample collections start small; a researcher or department buys a freezer for sample storage and the data is entered into an excel file. As the collection grows, the simplest solution is to add more of what already exists (freezers and excel files). It can be extremely difficult to change direction and move away from simply expanding what already exists. However, the need for more space, tighter controls, and better data management creeps up, and ultimately researchers find themselves spending more time trying to find space, worrying about sample security, and facing limits to their progress because of sample management issues. Often times, outsourcing to a professionally managed biorepository is the answer.
For those of us who have been providing biorepository services for decades, the pressure for cost reduction and the need for improved quality control over the sample collection, storage, and transfer process has increased over time. This has driven innovation, challenged protocols, and opened up opportunities throughout the research community.
Manufacturers of stand-alone freezers have made great progress in improving designs and creating great efficiency in both energy consumption and sample space per unit of floor space. There have also been enhancements in peripheral QC functions. However, there is a limit to how much these improvements will allow us to keep pace with future demands, in terms of both increased numbers and changing vial/storage container formats. Freezers will always require the fundamentals of space, power and people. What is for sure is that power costs will increase, space will become more valuable, and people will always be, well, people.
One way of addressing the challenge of storage capacity and staff time for sample storage and retrieval is through automation. The early designs were very costly and thus only available to a few. These were “project based” solutions that attempted to address the significant challenges of storing materials at ultra-low temperatures (-80°C), and required overcoming the harsh effects of these temperatures on mechanical components and consumables.
This is where we have been…. However, solutions evolve! What could the future look like?
It is evident that manufacturers of automated storage systems have invested heavily in improvements and worked to deliver marketable solutions to science. Although success was initially limited, the technology has evolved and is now available to a wider market with varied budgets.
We currently have good data to support significant benefits from automation, but it is still not so easy to establish obvious value for money or improvements in process suitability. It is fair to say that the choices available are numerous, for those who can standardize their future sample collections on a single tube format. For those who need flexibility to manage collections with different formats and new combinations, the answer to the “automation” challenge may have just appeared over the horizon, in the form of semi-automated storage units. If you are interested in more information about automation, click the image below to read and download our eBook on Automating Your Sample Collection for Biobanking: 10 Things to Consider.
A few manufacturers have recently introduced semi-automated designs to address some of the issues common to sample collections. These manufacturers are offering lower cost units that can accommodate standard cryoboxes instead of, or in addition to, tube racks. These semi automated stores file cryoboxes or tube racks on adjustable shelves or cassettes. When a sample or box is requested, the shelf/cassette is transported to an interface where an operator can pick out a vial or the whole box or rack as needed. The shelf (or cassette) then returns to its position in the store.
These designs eliminate the expensive, robotic hardware and software that pick and deliver individual vials, and the cassettes can be adjusted to accommodate cryoboxes and other containers. Further, there is no need for trained “super users.”
There will always be a need for the standard, standalone ultra-low freezer, but automated and semi-automated units are welcome options. The concept of simply delivering either boxes or tube racks to a waiting receiver is a tremendous innovation for those who cannot restrict practices to a standardized tube type. These semi-automated units change the game and create a new level of space and cost efficiencies.