Tracking Lab Rats with RFID

Building a better mousetrap has long been called the key to success in business. RFID is enabling a better way to track mice, which has led to business success but is also helping medical researchers find cures, as this article explains.
Published: December 6, 2007

This article was originally published by RFID Update.

December 6, 2007—There are millions of rats, mice, and other animals caged in laboratories throughout the world. Each one must be accurately identified and tracked to ensure the integrity of the medical research for which they’re used. RFID technology developer Dynasys has created what it believes is a one-of-a-kind RFID system for tracking caged laboratory animals. The University of Florida was the first institution to use the system, which has since been installed to monitor hundreds of thousands of animals in research facilities throughout the U.S., according to Dynasys CEO Bob Scher.

“Some facilities have 50,000 rodents. Some are diseased, or may have been exposed to dangerous radiation levels, so it’s very important to track these animals for safety purposes,” Scher told RFID Update. “With RFID, researchers can know where any animal is at any time. If they tried to inventory 50,000 cages by hand, they’d be recording and making errors for days.”

Laboratory animals and research programs are highly regulated, and labs often must report data to a myriad of government agencies and organizations that provide funding. Sometimes labs are reimbursed based on the number of animals they keep and the amount of time they care for them, so accurate check-in/check-out records are essential.

Scher likens the operation to managing a hotel. The combination of high accuracy needs, extensive data entry requirements, high labor costs for doctors and researchers, and millions of dollars in funding at stake create a strong value opportunity for RFID automation.

Ear tags and injectable RFID transponders have long been used to identify livestock and pets for a variety of applications. The Dynasys system is novel because the RFID tag is attached to the animal’s cage, not the animal itself.

“The problem with injectable transponders is that they are usually low frequency, have very short range, and often don’t have robust anti-collision capabilities,” Scher said. “You have to hold the mouse down to inject them, and would have to read them from near contact.”

Tagging cages enables Dynasys to use Gen2 UHF tags, which have the range, speed, and anti-collision capabilities to enable operators to inventory an entire rack of cages in seconds. Using Gen2 inlays from Texas Instruments, Dynasys created its own tags for the application to overcome the interference problems inherent with tagging metal cages. It provides standard handheld and fixed-position readers from Intermec as part of the system, which also includes highly customized software.

To earn approval for its system, Dynasys had to prove having RFID tags and readers operating in labs would not affect animal health or behavior. Injectable tags carry their own health concerns (see Animal RFID Chip Implants Linked to Cancer). As part of the certification process, Dynasys demonstrated the system in a lab while an animal physiologist monitored a mouse’s blood pressure (using surgically implanted sensors, not a tiny arm cuff).

“Every day we do something new in this business,” said Scher. “We thought this would be a one-off project, but Dr. August Battles at the University of Florida, who is considered the visionary for how animal care systems are handled, was so impressed with it he encouraged us to promote it to other labs.”

Scher won’t disclose how many facilities have installed the system, but said populations range from 3,000 to 50,000 animals, and he recently bid for a 500,000-animal system. He is unaware of any other RFID cage tracking systems, and said they are hard to develop because expertise in RFID and laboratory software systems is required.

“It can be justified cost-wise on the time savings alone, but that’s not why labs install it,” said Scher. “What’s much more important to the labs than the time savings is the accuracy. It’s error free. Laboratories have to account for each animal every step of the way. There are too many mistakes by hand. If you ask laboratories how many mistakes they make they won’t tell you, but they know mistakes happen with manual processes.”