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ROI in Biospecimen Tracking Thrives with RFID

Health Industry Insights' Eric Newmark explains in this guest contribution how a cancer research facility in France is reaping substantial return on investment through its RFID tagging of high-value biospecimens. The technology could end up saving the facility $3 million on a tag spend of just $32,000.
Jun 22, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 22, 2006—Back in February, Health Industry Insights' quarterly life science industry study identified biospecimen tracking as the quickest growing area within the life science research and development sector for RFID adoption; that according to 183 industry leaders who participated in the study. While most RFID pilot activities taking place today are being driven by drug safety and compliance initiatives, biospecimen tracking is one of the few areas being driven by real ROI. The recent adoption of RFID by the Paoli Calmettes Institute's Cell Therapy Facility and Tumor Cell Bank in France is evidence that this trend continues to increase.

The Paoli Calmettes Institute is one of Europe's largest cancer research facilities, banking over 170,000 biospecimens in total, with 1,300 new samples arriving monthly. The institute transitioned from handwritten tube and bag labels (a very time consuming process) to printed labels with barcodes several years ago to reduce process time and error rates. Efficiencies were gained, but further room for improvement remained. Over the last four years, the institute has been researching RFID technology to enhance security and chain-of-custody tracking of its specimens and is approaching the conclusion of its phase 1 pilot.

The pilot's objective (using high frequency tags from Tagsys) was to reduce process time and manual errors by automating the preparation of biospecimen samples for cryopreservation. Most samples are stored at very low temperatures (-90F) in liquid nitrogen, which makes tracking efforts difficult because tags become unreadable in that state. Samples must be taken out of the liquid nitrogen for a few seconds to rise in temperature before their information once again becomes readable.

Business Case

The pilot has proven that reading and writing to tags exposed to these temperature conditions does in fact work. But more importantly, the savings and efficiency gains expected from RFID are substantial.

Historically, handwriting labels took two to three minutes per label (40-50 samples at a time can take hours), and even though time has been saved by using printed labels, technicians still need to manually remove each sample and hand scan its barcode. Further, handwriting often becomes illegible after being stored in liquid nitrogen, printed labels can smudge, and samples can simply get misplaced. Director of the facility Christian Chabonnon, MD, Ph.D., said "things like this happen all the time," and estimates 5-10% of samples are lost due to problems like this. The tags in use cost $1-2 each, but Christian says "it's not very much money when you consider the price of the process and the samples. It has been estimated that a biology core sample of human origin with all biology and medical annotation may be worth $3,000-5,000, so paying a couple of dollars for a tag is not really an issue to us." Based on the numbers provided, eliminating just the 5% of samples lost could save the facility from $2.3 million to $3.9 million annually on new samples at a total tag cost of less than $32,000 per year.

Future Outlook

The institute is still currently relying on printed labels for most items, but over the next couple of months expects to begin rolling out tags to thousands of samples and may begin tagging liquid-containing bags (i.e., blood). It hopes to have all new incoming and outgoing samples tagged by the end of 2006.
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