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Labs Use EPC Gen 2 Tags to Manage Biological Samples

The FreezerPro system enables researchers to pinpoint the locations of frozen human tissue, viruses and other materials stored within vials or plates packed in boxes.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 04, 2010Two biomedical research laboratories that store human biological matter are using an RFID-based system to enable the tracking of frozen tissue and cells, as well as hazardous matter, while minimizing the need for lab personnel to handle the substances. The system, known as FreezerPro, is provided by Frederick, Md. company RURO, and is designed for the frozen sample storage market, in order to allow a user to know which items are stored in its freezers, what has been removed and when, and to easily locate them. Samples are typically inserted into clear, tube-shaped plastic vials placed in storage boxes. In high-volume labs, however, samples are also put in plates—flat plastic trays that have wells in which samples are placed. The plates, measuring approximately 2.5 inches in width and 4 inches in length, are stacked one on top of another in storage boxes, in quantities of up to nearly 400. Regardless of whether vials or plates are used, a freezer may contain thousands of samples.

The labs that have adopted RURO's system are storing samples in vials. By utilizing the system, the facilities have better security over their samples, which can include highly hazardous substances, such as frozen bacteria or viruses, as well as valuable items, such as material for stem-cell research. They can also use the system to complete storage audits quickly. Both laboratories asked not to be named for this article.

Doug Milliken, RURO's sales director
Historically, cold-storage labs face challenges tracking substances stored in vials within boxes that are, in turn, placed in freezers. Samples are stored at between -90 degrees and -190 degrees Celsius (-130 and -310 degrees Fahrenheit). Most vials and plates are either identified with a serial number or description handwritten on their exterior with a pen, or a bar-code label wrapped around them. The sample containers are stored in boxes that can contain between 64 and 100 samples. To ensure that a specific sample is where it should be, and to be sure the wrong sample is never removed, lab technicians must maintain a close inventory of which container is in which location. Whenever a vial is removed, its serial number must be recorded, or a bar-code label must be scanned to ensure that the proper sample has been taken out. In both cases, the build-up of frost on a container makes that task difficult. Frost often needs to be removed by hand to identify a vial, explains Doug Milliken, RURO's sales director. The over-handling of many such samples is undesirable, however, due to the hazardous nature of what is stored inside.

With the FreezerPro system, the labs use desktop readers and adhesive RFID labels attached to the exterior of each sample container. On every container's FreezerPro label, the labs print a bar-coded serial number provided for redundancy, as well as human-readable text regarding the sample, and also encode a unique ID number onto the label's embedded EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag (manufactured by Partnered Print Solutions). The samples are stored in boxes fitted with RFID tags encoded with unique ID numbers. FreezerPro software links the ID number of each box's tag with that of the tag attached to the particular sample container inside that box. As new vials or plates are created, the labs encode and print the labels on a Zebra Technologies printer, and then attach them. Once the labels are attached and the samples are placed in a box, the box simply needs to be placed on a reader, and the software can then capture all of the sample ID numbers, sparing the staff from having to remove specific samples to check their identity.

One of the two laboratories began utilizing the system about one year ago, and is now tracking approximately 30,000 samples of human biological material. The facility chose the RFID system to reduce the amount of handling necessary for verifying the proper usage of the correct sample for research work, and for decreasing the time spent taking inventory of the freezers. The lab must track the items when performing audits, which are conducted at least once annually.

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