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Innovation in Biobanking: Pushing the Boundaries

Posted by Karon Drew on Aug 4, 2015 11:00:00 AM

Biobank_WedgewoodThough biobanking has been a unique niche for many years, a 2009 article by Time Magazine helped solidify its importance as one of the 10 Ideas Changing the World. For librarians of specimens, also known as biorepository technicians, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and work instructions provide necessary order and structure, but oftentimes make daily activities a bit routine. In some instances this can diminish the spark that’s necessary to push boundaries and insert innovation. 

As the Assistant Project Director of a busy central biorepository where 1.4 million transactions occur annually, I believe that innovation is of critical importance to the wide variety of tasks involved in a biobanking environment, ranging from shipping and receiving, to laboratory processing and data analysis. In this blog I’d like to discuss how to create a culture of innovation and some boundary-pushing ideas that have improved our daily processes.

All About That [Data]base
The data associated with samples hold a wealth of information and the way data is available to and utilized by the end-user makes the database a focal point of continuous improvement. In a biorepository, utilizing new and innovative tools can speed-up tasks, increase transparency, and overall efficiency.

In our project, we had a challenge where we needed to move 2 million biospecimens into a dense storage unit in a very short period of time. For each chest or upright freezer we emptied, it took about 3 hours to update the data because our database didn’t have the ability to update a box location, as well as all the associated data updates in one step. The process was incredibly cumbersome but by adding a new tool to our existing data management system, we were able to cut the 3 hour process down to 15 minutes!  Our database was updated in real-time, rather than the next day which helped to speed withdrawal requests for biospecimens in process of being moved and significantly increased the speed of our project. This innovative database tool became an integral part of our process improvement and allowed us to focus our attention elsewhere.

Improving Sample Handling
Sometimes innovation is born out of convenience and if you observe your employees' work they will inevitably find ways to make their jobs easier within the boundaries set by your SOPs. Sometimes these little gems lead to improvement by others on the team and this is where the magic occurs.

CryoCradleThis was the case with CryoCradleTM.  CryoCradle is an aluminum alloy heat sink that draws heat 1200 times more effectively than fiberboard. But it started out as an idea to save time schlepping dry ice around. A repository technician developed this timesaver  by creating a fiberboard sink using a cryobox lid with two notches cut out of it on each side. By putting two of these together and filling dry ice all around it in an insulated container, he didn’t have to move the dry ice around each time a box was added or removed (something he did all day long). 

One of our biorepository manager’s observed how much cryoboxes could warm during out-of-freezer handling and remembered this alternative timesaver. He then thought making the “sink” in metal would improve the heat transfer of the dry ice; keeping specimens colder and more consistently-so while being handled would save time for all of our staff. It was from this combination of ideas that we developed the CryoCradle as a countermeasure. By using the CryoCradle with a smaller insulated basin instead of large carts holding dry ice, we have standardized biospecimen processing, minimized temperature variability, decreased the quantity of dry ice consumed and improved efficiency in our global biobanks and biorepositories

Room for Improvement
As with anything, there is always room for improvement. From a biorepository standpoint, this is certainly the case with historic or legacy collections. Many boxes, bags, vials, and slides of samples have been stored in freezers BBC (Before Bar Coding). This identifies a gap in our industry in how to accommodate, automate, and label legacy collections. Another challenge in handling older material is that a huge amount of labor is required to handle them, which then necessitates the budget to accommodate a hefty amount of labor.

“Why don’t you just use a robot?” you may ask. Most automated systems are based on utilizing a specific type of tube that the robot is programmed to handle, but this isn’t always available. It is also a struggle when working with frozen material that cannot be warmed while being updated without detriment to the sample. “What about using a tube with a pre-barcoded overcoat?” They are incredibly expensive which, again, requires a flexible budget and often increases the space requirements for your collection as a result of using the secondary larger tube to contain the former. Before you know it, you can only store 45 specimens where you used to contain 81.

Some of our legacy material dates back to the 1950s and are historically significant. Therefore, it is incredibly important to find a way to store the samples safely and handle them with care. This is a challenge that requires innovation across our industry. 

Many Brains Are Better than One
When working to create a culture of innovation it’s important to have a team perspective; many brains working towards a solution is better than one individual. Depending on the various roles of your team members, most individuals will have their own unique perspective on challenges they encounter. It’s important to give them a voice that allows them to put their expertise to work. Celebrate the ideas your team offers up even when they don’t bear fruit, because somebody else may improve upon it and you might strike innovative “gold.” When you do, give credit where credit is due. It is often the last person in the idea chain that is celebrated, but without that first imperfect “what if”, and the 2nd etc., the ultimate improvement would never have happened. Celebrate the team success by acknowledging that each link in the idea-chain was necessary to arrive at the finish line. That’s how you build a culture of innovation.

What are some challenges that you encounter in your work environment?  What are some innovative ideas you’ve implemented that are improving your processes? Use the comment box below and let’s get the discussion going!

Is your inventory automation-friendly?  Chances are, if you didn’t launch your biobank with automation in mind, or if a large percentage of your inventory is legacy collections, you’ve got some serious challenges ahead of you.  Download our eBook Automating Your Sample Collection for Biobanking: 10 Things to Consider to learn more!

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