Transporting Critical Bio-Material: How do you safely move an irreplaceable biospecimen collection?

Posted by Bruce C. Simpson on Jun 25, 2015 10:03:00 AM

Are you faced with the task of relocating a biospecimen collection? Moving a substantial inventory of samples is a logistical challenge, and requires managing temperature, equipment, regulatory, and personnel safety issues. The choice of vehicle used for transport may be low on the list, but the right truck can be critical to success.

The best mode of transportation for moving your irreplaceable sample collection from Point A to Point B may not be one you are familiar with. This Info Poster explores the pros and cons associated with the well-known (standard) option vs. specialized transport services and associated ancillary equipment. Getting familiar with all of your options will lead to a better decision.

The Standard Option: Pros

The standard option is a truck equipped with mechanical refrigeration/freezer units. These vehicles are readily available and can transport materials that must be protected from the hot summer sun, kept refrigerated, or kept frozen to about -20°C. If you are moving materials at these temperatures, and if exposure to elevated temperatures presents low risk, this is a viable option.

If you are also moving materials that must be maintained at temperatures below -20°C, the standard option is to find a vehicle with a generator that can be used to keep your freezers running during transport. Alternatively, these materials can be packed for transport in dry ice.

The standard option can also be the most economical, as refrigerator/freezer trucks are widely available (although trucks with generators are somewhat harder to find) and can also be hired for one-way transport.

The Standard Option: Cons

A major drawback is risk of mechanical failure, including the refrigeration/freezer unit, the truck-mounted generator, and any freezers that are being transported. In some cases, like dominoes, one failure leads to others and there is no back-up.

If the refrigeration/freezer unit fails, the materials will be exposed to elevated temperatures (no back-up). If you are transporting materials inside freezers, powered by the truck-mounted generators, the excess heat load in the cargo area will overwhelm the compressors, leading to excursion or freezer failure.

Dry ice, which sublimes at -78.5°C, will maintain specimens at ultra-low temperatures and is minimally susceptible to mechanical failure. However, determining how much dry ice is needed to maintain temperature for worst-case travel time is at best a guess. It also means exposing specimens (and employees) to carbon dioxide (CO2). Exposure to high CO2 levels can alter certain properties of biospecimens, including pH, and may not be an option in moving some samples.

Should the truck-mounted generator fail, the freezers will also fail (again, no back-up). However, even if the truck’s refrigeration/freezer unit and the truck-mounted generator work flawlessly, you are still at high risk for mechanical failure, because freezers are not designed to operate while in motion!  Doing so creates risk of mechanical failure and frequently voids the warranty.

The compressors in freezers, like car engines, have pistons and need a continual flow of oil to function. If the freezer is jolted while in operation, the oil in the compressor and separator can splash onto the sides of the housing, allowing oil to pump past these components. A significant bump can cause the compressors, which are spring-mounted, to strike against the motor and melt the wax coating that protects the windings from shorting. A severe jolt can break the compressor free of the mounts, causing catastrophic failure.

Mechanical failure is the primary drawback, but there are others. For instance,

  • No on-board temperature monitoring.
  • Generator trucks have very limited availability.
  • Emergency service is also limited.
  • Typical service includes only driving the vehicle—no packing, loading, or unloading.
  • Finally, even if all these mechanical systems work during transit, the controllable temperature range is at best, ±7°C, leaving very little margin.

Fisher Clinical Services’ Specialized Cold Chain Logistics and Vehicles: the Pros

Our specialized transport service provides a number of advantages that add up to the industry’s highest level of risk mitigation, for both managing the temperature and integrity of the research materials, and preserving the mechanical integrity of the equipment. These include:

Reliability.  Our trucks are equipped with mechanical refrigeration units and a liquid nitrogen (LN2) piping system. Our on-board LN2 systems have no moving mechanical parts, and are substantially more reliable than mechanical systems. Temperature is controlled via solenoids, which vary the flow of LN2, and these solenoids will run for extended periods on battery power if needed.

Better temperature management.  Our LN2 piping system provides tighter control over temperatures and also allows transport of materials at different temperatures.

On-board temperature monitoring systems. We can provide temperature data start-to-finish.

Protection of the cold storage equipment.  Specimens can be transported inside the freezers; the LN2 piping will maintain temperature, so they can remain powered off. 

Specialized ultra-low and cryogenic transport.  We can pack ultra-low materials—biospecimens that must be maintained between -70°C and -90°C —in our custom transport chambers.  We have an inventory of custom-built transport chambers that connect to the LN2 piping system for transporting materials at ultra-low temperatures. They can be configured to accommodate any size container, protect it from breakage, and ensure a uniform temperature throughout the interior. LN2 tanks can be installed and transported with ease.

No dry ice, ever.

Full service.  Our drive teams are trained in biospecimen management and will pack, load, and unload specimens as well as freezers. We gather the permits, plan the logistics, and coordinate the move.


Fisher Clinical Services’ Specialized Cold Chain Vehicles and Logistics: the Cons

We know our services are specialized and not for every situation.  Our services are specifically designed for the protection of very high value materials and the peace of mind of the researchers who depend on them.

In planning a transfer, ask a potential transportation provider the following questions:

  • Will service include arranging all logistics, including permits?
  • Can you provide in-transit temperature data provided?
  • Do you pack, load, un-load, and restore the inventory?
  • How do you minimize risk?
  • Will warranties on cold storage equipment be preserved?
  • Can you re-validate equipment following the move?

Well-established methods for shipping and delivering products—food, medications, and other materials—that have to be kept cold or frozen have existed for decades. To protect your samples, gain FDA approval, and be commercially successful, you need reliable logistical options.


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