Automated Biobanking: Advantages, Benefits and Future Directions

By automating biobanking processes, sample integrity and security can be protected, biobanking activities can be streamlined, and space and energy can be efficiently utilized.

Automated Biobanking: Advantages, Benefits and Future Directions
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A biobanking system has become a crucial tool for improving healthcare outcomes through basic and clinical research. The revolution in biobanks, biorepositories, and biospecimen science is driven by a variety of technological advances including artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, robotics, the internet, and other rapidly emerging technologies.

Achieving optimal biobanking processes such as collecting, preserving, transporting, and storing biological materials is essential for pharmaceutical development, clinical diagnostics, and medical research. Automating, integrating software, and using advanced biological material identification methods are a few of the technological advancements which can provide innovative solutions to common challenges and significantly improve efficiency.

There has never been a better time to consider automation of biobanking than at this moment, as many newly established national, regional, and disease-specific biobanks and biorepositories are considering how to enhance sample integrity, tracking, and audit trails.1

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The demand for specimen tracking and sample integrity is forcing biobanks to turn to automation to maintain specimen integrity. There are various stages in the biobanking process where automation can be applied to improve access, costs, and efficiency.

“The advantage of automation is that instruments are more powerful, can aggregate data more quickly, and can find analytical insights that otherwise wouldn’t be found.”

Henrik Gehrmann, vice president of engineering at Clear Labs

In order to ensure consistent quality, biobanks and biorepositories should standardize, harmonize, and quality control the collection, processing, storage, and retrieval of samples. Quality management systems and standard operating procedures can be implemented to achieve this goal. Biobanking can be supported by implementing technical solutions, in particular, through the critical process areas automation. Automation increases reproducibility and accuracy through the reduction or elimination of human handling steps and decreases the incidence of mislabeling and misplacement.

There are many steps that can be automated to improve sample quality and reduce errors within the biobanking process, but the collection itself still requires manual handling. Samples need to be collected by a trained professional, though SOPs can be used to standardize the process. Samples should be frozen as soon as they’re collected, so they don’t lose quality.2

Automated biobank can improve the biobank workflow in both quantitative and qualitative ways, including traceability of samples, secure storage, sample preservation, and quicker retrieval of samples. Compared to manual sample transportation, automated sample transport from clinics and pre-analytical laboratories provides several benefits.

One of the main advantages is that the specimens can be delivered 24/7 without the need for staff to be on hand at all times, thereby reducing costs associated with personnel. Workstations that automate sample movement within the lab can also be used to enhance the sample movement process. An automatic aliquoting module can move samples to storage for preservation after they are processed into aliquots.3

The use of automation makes it possible to store or distribute more samples in less time, with less staff. Keeping employees safe and retaining them may affect cost efficiency. By automating sample storage and distribution, safety features can be improved and tedium can be reduced. Aside from improving your personnel retention, using automated technology to lift these heavy racks can save your time and money by reducing the need to hire and train competent employees repeatedly.

The use of automation in healthcare enhances efficiency across a variety of medical services by introducing specific software. The purpose of this is to increase productivity and capability through the use of modern techniques and tools. Whenever new samples are received in biobanks, they must first be logged into their tracking system. The process can be tedious and time-consuming if done manually, and prone to errors. 4

With the use of barcodes, it is possible to automate this process. Biobanks use laboratory information management systetoms (LIMS) to store all relevant information regarding samples. Tracking accuracy can only be achieved by using automated barcode scanning at all stages. The LIMS processes the sample according to predefined work orders after the reader receives the information from the scanner. LIMS that integrate with electronic medical records and barcode labels can improve specimen tracking for biobanks that manage a variety of samples.

In automated sample processing, biobanking workflows can be automated using a number of systems. A variety of automated systems can be utilized for these tasks, which range from simple tasks like handling liquid and aliquoting to more complex ones like extracting DNA. Different extraction methods can be employed in a variety of systems, ranging from magnetic beads to centrifuge-based precipitation systems. Additionally, virtually all pre-analytical steps can be automated for liquid samples. The sampling and partitioning of tissue samples, however, remain largely manual processes.

“As patient population samples surge, automated storage units have now been developed that improve biobanks’ capacity to cater to a larger number of samples.”

Divyaa Ravishankar, Senior Research Analyst, Life Sciences

Samples processed using automated systems require special attention to the tube format. Aliquoting samples requires picking, placing, and opening and closing tubes using robots. In addition, it is important to identify the tubes. Print-and-apply systems can be used to label cryovials during the process, or they can be supplied pre-barcoded. Cryo straws should be labeled before they are filled. Hermetically sealing both ends of the straws prevents further automated handling of the sample vials.6

By automating biobanking processes, sample integrity and security can be protected, biobanking activities can be streamlined, and space and energy can be efficiently utilized. It has been suggested that automation is an effective tool for standardizing processes in biobanks. The use of automation can provide many benefits, including the following; as a result, standardization can contribute to limiting, eliminating or fully controlling the technical factors that may negatively impact sample quality:

  • Reduced error susceptibility
  • Availability at all times
  • Process adaptation that is flexible and fast
  • Process steps are minimized by reducing manual work
  • Individual samples are easily traceable
  • Workflows have become more transparent

Almost all pre-analytical processes can be automated today, especially for liquid samples. There are, however, certain steps in the field of tissue biobanking that cannot be automated, such as the sample collection and partitioning of tissues (with the exception of robotic-assisted surgery).

Keeping samples separate or preventing mix-ups, the unambiguous assignment of samples is a prerequisite for automating the entire process. Tubes with two-dimensional barcodes commonly used in biobanks, provide an easy way to assign samples unambiguously. In addition, special barcode readers are required to capture 2D barcodes. Many automated systems for processing and storing biosamples include 2D barcode capture options built in or retrofittable.

Automating laboratory transport has become easy in today’s world. In comparison to manual sample transport, automation has several advantages, for example, without excessive personnel costs, fast turnaround time and 24/7 availability is provided.7

Analytic instruments and sample archives are linked to pre-analytical workstations using automated peri-analytic systems. Transporting single samples is possible with validated pneumatic tube systems (e.g. the Tempus600) and collections of vials of samples (e.g. the Aerocom) from outpatient wards and clinics to clinical routine labs, pre-analytical labs and biobanks.

When transporting samples, it is important to avoid acceleration and deceleration forces as much as possible in order to avoid hemolysis of samples and subsequent release of certain analytes, like those found in blood cells, and interference with subsequent analytical methods.

In recent years, automation of sample processing has been developed in several ways to support different biobanking workflows. A variety of processes are available, ranging from simple aliquotation to complex workflows, such as buffy coat separation, nucleic acid isolation, and peripheral mononuclear cell processing.

In biobanking, the storage system is one of the most important components. The advantages of automation in this area are numerous. Through optimized workflows, samples can be stored, transferred, and retrieved without frequent temperature fluctuations. During sample handling, it is crucial to maintain the same temperature as in storage. As a result, not only can energy be saved, but the quality of samples can also be improved. Storage space efficiency is another important aspect.8 In addition to defragmentation, automated storage allows for efficient use and storage space optimization. As biobanks become more dynamic, this becomes increasingly important.

“Automation leads to meaningful economies of scale so that the biobank can continue to grow, organically or through external services, without a significant increase in labor, materials, or equipment.”

Matthew Hamilton, President of Hamilton Storage, based in Franklin, MA

Researchers use biobanks to store samples until they need them for certain research purposes. Various temperatures can be used depending on storage devices to collect individual sample subsets for individual projects. In some cases, individual biobanks might only be able to provide a part of the biological samples required for a specific research question. Researchers should be able and expert enough to combine samples from several biobanks if they plan to combine samples from different biobanks.

The biorepositories or biobanks might have trouble interoperating if they have different storage formats, e.g. barcode labels and screw caps, which require tools to handle samples automatically that aren’t common and can’t be used at certain biobanks or research centers. It is also possible for modern aliquoters to be useful in such situations when they are capable of opening and processing as many formats as possible, aside from laborious manual sample handling. There are, however, no or only partially available systems that fulfill these functions. Due to the lack of an automated method for opening and recovering samples, straws must be manually processed, which is another problem.9

Automated solutions, if planned properly and suited for the intended purpose, clearly have more advantages than disadvantages, including costs versus benefits. Automating biobanking requires careful consideration before implementation. However, the interfaces between automation components still have some gaps. It is ideal to transfer samples from sample aliquotation systems to sample freezing systems and then to sample storage systems. Through scientific advancements, the gaps in automated biobanking workflows will, however, be filled in the near future.10

References

  1. Linsen, L., Van Landuyt, K., & Ectors, N. (2020). Automated sample storage in biobanking to enhance translational research: the bumpy road to implementation. Frontiers in medicine, 6, 309.
  2. Baber, R., & Kiehntopf, M. (2019). Automation in biobanking from a laboratory medicine perspective. Journal of Laboratory Medicine, 43(6), 329-338.
  3. Owen, J. M., & Woods, P. (2008). Designing and implementing a large-scale automated− 80° C archive. International journal of epidemiology, 37(suppl_1), i56-i61.
  4. Ruiz, R. L., & Duffy, V. G. (2021, July). Automation in Healthcare Systematic Review. In International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction(pp. 111-124). Springer, Cham.
  5. Paul, S., Gade, A., & Mallipeddi, S. (2017). The state of cloud-based biospecimen and biobank data management tools. Biopreservation and Biobanking, 15(2), 169-172.
  6. Genzen, J. R., Burnham, C. A. D., Felder, R. A., Hawker, C. D., Lippi, G., & Peck Palmer, O. M. (2018). Challenges and opportunities in implementing total laboratory automation. Clinical chemistry, 64(2), 259-264.
  7. Van Niekerk, J. (2012). Enhancing Biorepository Sample Integrity with Automated Storage and Retrieval. Management of Chemical and Biological Samples for Screening Applications.
  8. Vaught, J. B., & Henderson, M. K. (2011). Biological sample collection, processing, storage and information management. IARC Sci Publ, 163(163), 23-42.
  9. Paskal, W., Paskal, A. M., Dębski, T., Gryziak, M., & Jaworowski, J. (2018). Aspects of modern biobank activity–comprehensive review. Pathology & Oncology Research, 24(4), 771-785.
  10. Holland, I., & Davies, J. A. (2020). Automation in the life science research laboratory. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8, 571777.
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