Overview of the problem

An example may suffice to illustrate the problem we are working on at BioTillion. An April 16, 2006 article in the New York Times Magazine by Rebecca Skloot titled ʺTaking the Least of You, The Tissue Industrial Complex" describes a researcher searching for a specific sample tube at the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

She pushed aside vial after vial. "I know we still have him somewhere," she yelled, her head still inside the freezer. "We've got serum from, like, 450,000 people." O'Connell grabbed a ragged cardboard box the size of a paperback book. "This is my treasure box," she said. "I bet Ted's in here." The box held 56 tiny glass vials filled with clear blood serum... Around each vial, on a thin piece of tape, someone had scribbled information about each sample. "That's duck," O'Connell said, raising a vial to eye level. She dropped it and grabbed the next one. "Woodchuck." She shook her head. "Geez, somebody should organize this." She lifted vials one at a time, reading labels, dropping them back into the box and muttering, "Duck. . . duck. . .human, not Ted. . . duck. . . woodchuck. . . human, not Ted. . ." ...  
Suddenly, she twirled to face me, arm extended, holding one tiny vial, grinning. "Here he is!" she said. "Ted Slavin."

This is just one biobank. Worldwide, many tens of millions of new biological samples are being collected and stored annually. These samples are used by pharmaceutical companies, universities, hospitals, diagnostic testing and research centers, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The National Institutes of Health (NIH), national genetic databases, forensic investigators from crime or disaster scenes, criminal population databases, genetic researchers, etc.

Some of the difficulties encountered in sample tracking and management are listed below, roughly in order of descending importance. 

  1. Verifying the location of a sample now requires that the sample be removed from the freezer and handled in some way. This inevitably warms the samples and compromises their integrity.
  2. Records documenting where a sample is supposed to be located do not always reflect where a sample is actually located.
  3. Increasing regulation demanding inventory audits is a growing manpower burden on biobanks.
  4. Documenting who removed or added a sample and when is a manual entry process. 
  5. Samples are typically stored in ultra low temperature freezers (-80º C or -200º C) but there is no way to know if and for how long a sample was out of the freezer - sample integrity is always in question.
  6. Ice and frost make it difficult by humans and barcode readers to read labels.
  7. When a sample is misplaced it is essentially lost.
  8. Misplacement, corruption of records, detachment of adhesive labels, and personnel turnover, make it difficult to retrace the location, provenance and other properties of each sample.
  9. Freezer boxes are often partially filled to avoid grouping unrelated samples.  This results in underutilized freezers.
  10. It is time consuming to recover when vials are spilled from their box, a not uncommon occurrence.  To maintain the database integrity the sample vials must be restored to their original locations or the database needs to be updated.

Maintaining large collections of samples is fraught with many difficulties. And the problem is only getting worse due to the ever-growing number of samples and the increasing regulation and oversight of biobanks.

The Coldtrack platform is designed to electronically track large collections of samples kept at ultra low temperatures in biobanks and biorepositories. This is done by associating a unique electronic tag with each sample and providing methods to read these IDs.

Our first product, BoxMapper, along with our ColdTrack vials enables fast mapping of sample box contents outside of the freezer.  Our Single Vial Reader reads the RFID of a single vial.