Sample Management for the Biobanking Sector – an Interview with Neil Benn, Managing Director at Ziath

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Nowadays, 2D barcode technology has been widely adopted in modern biobanking for better sample tracking and management. Ziath, one of our Gold sponsors, is the expert and world leader in this area, with a range of innovative products like 2D barcode scanners and readers for sample tubes. recently spoke with Neil Benn, Managing Director at Ziath to learn more about the company, their latest developments, and Neil’s views on the future of biobanking.

Please tell us about the company Ziath and the products you make?

Ziath is a company based in Cambridge, UK. It’s been around for approaching 15 years, and we specialize in instrumentation for sample management. Our primary range of products is associated with 2D barcode scanners for tubes held in racks. We also have sample management software tools to track, pick and select tubes.

We’re quite unique in the marketplace in the fact that we’re one of the few companies that design, develop, make, produce, sell, and support their own equipment. We don’t contract anything out at all, which gives us the ability to rapidly develop new products and provide better support than someone who just contracts out the technical aspects of their work.

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How has sample management been traditionally performed within a laboratory?

Back in the old days, when I started, sample management worked by storing the samples in tubes. Possibly, you stored them unlabelled in a freezer. In fact, the first freezer that I used to store samples was a meat freezer in the car park, and the only labelling you had was writing on the rack or on the outside of the storage tube. Or, if you were particularly advanced, you’d have a barcode, a 1D barcode, labelled on the side of the rack.

The databases, if they existed, were quite often just Word documents or Excel documents, and there wasn’t much concept of having sophisticated tracking for chemical compounds in the industry. Over the last 20 years sample management has totally changed from these quite basic and rudimentary beginnings.

What were the changes you saw when 2D barcodes tubes were introduced?

From humble beginnings with samples stored in a meat freezer, with tracking using Word and Excel files, we have evolved today to sophisticated mobile sample tracking applications. What happened during this journey was that sample management began to be taken as a genuine serious discipline.

As organizations realized that their samples were highly valuable, sample management became a real discipline, rather than just something that got shoved aside, given to the junior tech with a freezer in the carpark.

The introduction of 2D barcodes tubes is what really changed that. I was there at the start of it as a user; the equipment was not easy to use. That’s when we started Ziath. We were the first company that had sample-tracking barcode-reading tools that were incredibly easy to use.

What are the points of failure with this method?

The main point of failure with this method is that, without individual bar-coded tubes, it’s very easy to misidentify a tube. If you pick up a tube and put it down in the wrong place, you’ll never know. This means that you’ll be sending the wrong sample out to the biologist, or chemist, or doctor, whoever it is that’s processing it. Then, there is the issue that if you are handling individual tubes, and you make a mistake, for instance, if you drop a rack of 96 tubes on the floor, then you’ve lost track of all the samples. As I said, if you inadvertently put a tube or rack down in the wrong place, again, you’ll never know that you have made a mistake.

So, that’s one of the core sources of mistakes. The other side of it is that if you’re storing these in a freezer that varies in temperature, you would never know about the damage caused to your samples.

Then the last factor is if your data tracking systems aren’t up to scratch. In this instance, there’s a high chance you could lose a sample or not be able to find it again once you placed it in the system, because your data tracking system can’t keep up with the number of samples you’re handling.

How will mobile apps and devices like this solve these points of failure?

These days, organizations are generally storing their samples in 2D barcodes tubes. Worldwide there are a large number of 2D barcoded tube manufacturers, and we see new ones coming out every few years. However, what happens quite often these days is that the samples aren’t stored in meat freezers anymore. They’re stored in either large -80℃ freezers or liquid nitrogen tanks. But these generally tend to be in an outbuilding, or in a basement, or somewhere that isn’t a nice cosy, insulated lab with lovely Internet and Wi-Fi and power.

So, even though we’ve now got enterprise-scale database systems with barcoded tubes and racks and systems to track all those, you still quite often have to write on a scrap of paper. You note down which liquid nitrogen tank you want, which rack you want, which shelf you want, which freezer it is in and so on. Then you go down with your scrap of paper, pull the tubes out, tick them off on the scrap of paper, and then bring them back to the lab to check that you’ve got the right ones.

What you really want to be able to do is check them at the point of retrieval. Now, that’s not so easy, because rooms where you have fridges and liquid nitrogen tanks aren’t often suitable places for a big laptop. As such, the drivers for mobile apps are that you can be in the lab and get the information you want on your mobile device. This will then allow you to head down to your semi-automated or manual storage area with that app, and actually process the tubes there and then, and check you have the right ones. This eliminates the need for the pencil and scrap of paper that many people are still using today.

Another driver for adoption of mobile apps and devices could be in biobanking. When you do biobanking, you are handling human samples such as blood, urine, and biopsy material. Because samples are being taken from a patient or in an operating theater, they can’t really be processed with standard sample tracking machinery and equipment. Quite often, a biobanking sample gets thrown into a tube and quickly labelled up somehow, and then moved.

If you can have a mobile app that allows you to register your biobanking sample against a specific barcoded tube, with the information as close to the point of collection as you can, then that will make your life much easier. If you’ve got something that looks just like a phone or PDA in front of you, it’s not going to worry the patient unduly when compared to having a large and unfamiliar piece of equipment there.

How else could the introduction of mobile apps and devices benefit sample management in the laboratory?

There is a lot of hype about the advantages of using the Internet for sample management. Essentially if you can remotely control your sample management process, then you can pick it all up and carry it around with you wherever you go, allowing you to pick up a tube and scan it.

It will then tell you what’s the next step in the process that needs to happen to this tube. Do you need to go and send it to someone for biological treatment? Does it need to be diluted? Does it need to be delivered to a certain person? You can use the mobile device directly for tracking samples. So, when these samples come into your lab, you can receive the samples in and change the tracked location to say that it’s coming to, or arrived at, your workplace. That allows you to just pull out a sample, scan it, and then register it into your system as you need it. It simplifies the physical handling whilst maintaining tracking integrity and keeping your database up to date.

Of course, this isn’t revolutionary stuff. People are staring at their phones all the time, maybe too much, and a mobile device could do the same thing. If you investigate logistics for supermarkets, for instance, they get this kind of stuff sorted out and arranged quickly. So, what needs to be achieved is not science fiction, but scientists do certainly need to catch up to the rest of the commercial world in the adaptation of mobile devices for controlling their process from start to finish.

How is Ziath helping sample management move to the next level of digital records management?

We’ve already got a handheld device that allows you to scan barcoded tubes that can interact with third-party systems. It’s quite revolutionary. There’s nothing else like it on the market, and we’re currently working with customers to integrate it into their larger sample management systems.

The platform used by this device is designed to be open so that you can integrate it into your systems in the way in which you want. You can also have a network of these devices if your sample management volume requires it. In the future, we’re looking to have our devices support Bluetooth, with batteries in them, so that rather than bringing your racked samples to the barcode scanner, you could bring a barcode scanner to the sample racks. Our next generation is going to be battery enabled, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi-enabled devices that you can pick up and take with you.

What are the advantages of using Ziath to make sample management in a laboratory? How does Ziath compare to your competitors on the market? What really sets you apart?

Before starting the company, I worked in sample management in a variety of different organizations from large pharma to academia. The equipment available to us was difficult to use, and not particularly reliable, so we set out to make equipment that rectified those problems. That was our first objective.

The next objective, which I talked about before, was to have very good support. Often I’d want to get support, and I’d have to fill a form in or speak to someone, who’d speak to someone, who’d speak to someone else. So, we decided that the support would come from the people who have the knowledge and experience to build the instruments, which we still do today. Support is done by the senior people in the company, rather than by more junior staff members.

This ethos is reflected in that whilst I am the Managing Director of the company I am also responsible for support. Having excellent customer service at our core is vital, because if you are in front of a machine and you need to know how to use it, or it’s not doing something that you think it should be doing, you need a knowledgeable person to help you. This is an area in which Ziath excel. That happens because we build, design, and make our own equipments. No one else does that. The launch of several generations of innovative equipments from Ziath has helped revolutionize the use of sample tracking.

We don’t make 2D barcoded tubes; we’ll work with anybody’s tubes. We like to call it “tube agnostic”. You can choose whichever supplier you want to use, and we guarantee our stuff will work with all the 2D Datamatrix tubes currently on the market. So, that’s where we are now.

As I have previously said, our future encompasses embracing the concept of mobile technologies, including portable scanners. You’ll be able to control the scanners from a web page or control your tube rack scanners from a phone. We’re looking to unchain the whole sample tracking process from the bench and bring it as close to the point of storage as possible, which is the liquid nitrogen tanks and the freezers.

How do you envision the future of the biobanking industry in the next 5-10 years?

In the first phase of biobanking the emphasis was on obtaining samples which has been done successfully with biobanks containing millions upon millions of tubes.

In the next phase, Biobanks are giving samples out to researchers and also pulling tubes out as and when people are requesting their samples to be removed. Therefore, a smooth and easy system to retrieve tubes and send them out on a large scale will need to be continued to be developed.

In future, mining of sample data will be of tremendous importance. If biobank donors agree we could sequence the genome of donors to compare phenotypical information with genomic data to deep mine for potential correlations. The future potential of biobanking is considerable, however logistical and ethical challenges need to be addressed in line with various regulatory bodies as the resource is mined for the eventual aim of ‘personalised medicine’. This needs to be done on a global basis so that new and effective medicines through a greater understanding of human phenotyping is achieved.