This is Part I in a two-part series about the movement toward professionally-managed biorepositories.
These days, there’s a constant clamour for “More research!”
But, more research means more samples . . . and that, in turn, calls for better sample management, which continues to prove a significant challenge for 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. And so, for the sake of those who rely on “biobankers,” I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and ask, “Where have we been?” and “Where are we going?”
Where have we been?
Most sample collections start small; a researcher or department buys a freezer for sample storage, and the data for these samples is entered into an Excel file. As the collection grows, the simplest solution is to add more of what already exists (i.e., freezers and Excel files). It can be extremely difficult to change direction and move away from simply expanding what already exists. However, over time, the need for more space, tighter controls and better data management creeps ever upward, and ultimately, researchers find themselves wasting time trying to find space, worrying about sample security and facing limits to their progress –all because of sample management issues.
At that point, outsourcing to a professionally-managed biorepository becomes a possible solution.
Those of us who have been providing biorepository services for decades have seen the pressures for cost reduction and the need for improved quality control over the sample collection, storage and transfer process to increase steadily. On the bright side, those pressures have driven innovation, challenged protocols and opened up opportunities throughout the research community.
For example, 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. In addition, there have been enhancements in peripheral QC functions.
But, I’ll be among the first to admit that 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 . . . and there’s no doubt about it: Space continues to become more valuable. Power costs will increase. And people will always be, well, people.
One way of addressing the challenges of storage capacity and staff time for sample storage and retrieval is through automation. Granted, the early designs were very costly and thus only available to a few. But these were “project-based” solutions that attempted to address the significant challenges of storing materials at ultra-low temperatures (-80°C), and they required overcoming the harsh effects of these temperatures on mechanical components and consumables.
As we all know, though, solutions evolve! What could the future look like?
Stay tuned for Part II, Where are we going?