The Texas Heart Institute (THI) Biorepository and Biospecimen Profiling Core Laboratory has received an R24 grant award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the automation and modernization of the facility’s sample storage and handling process. With this $220,000 grant, the THI Biorepository will acquire the BioStore Cryo III cryopreservation system, a leading-edge automated liquid nitrogen (LN2) freezer workstation. This upgraded and automated workflow will enhance the biorepository’s existing storage capabilities and its ability to support biomedical research across the Texas Medical Center (TMC) and the nation.
Biorepositories store biological specimens—frozen samples of tissue, blood, and other materials collected through clinical research studies and clinical trials—for biomedical researchers who later analyze the samples to better understand and treat human diseases. With the advent of omics-based technologies, the demand for expert preservation of clinical samples has increased as investigators seek novel biomarkers that could be used for disease prediction, early diagnosis, and precision-medicine approaches. Automated systems can help streamline and improve the core functions of a biorepository: cataloging the exact location of each stored specimen, retrieving the frozen specimen when needed, and avoiding incidental thawing of any other specimens in the process.
Because of the dual nature of THI’s facility—it is both a Biorepository and a Biospecimen Profiling laboratory—automation already plays a role in the core’s operations. The biorepository is accredited by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) Biorepository Accreditation Program. In 2015, it became the first biorepository in Texas to receive CAP accreditation; the facility was reaccredited in 2018 and 2021 and remains one of the few CAP-accredited biorepositories in the state. The automation of biorepository sample storage enabled by the grant will complement the automation already embraced by the core’s cell-profiling processes. Lourdes Chacon-Alberty, MD, MCTM, Assistant Director, shared, “The information that we can gain from these specimens is extremely valuable, and we place the utmost emphasis on maintaining sample quality and providing accurate analyses. We take advantage of technology to automate sample handling whenever possible, so we have invested in liquid-handling robots, automated plate washers, and incubated plate readers, for example.”
Dr. Chacon-Alberty explained the impact that the new cryopreservation equipment will have on the biorepository and the investigators that it serves, saying, “This new automated freezer workstation will enable traceable access to the preserved samples, and allow us to quickly retrieve the selected samples without exposing the other samples to potentially damaging freeze-thaw cycles. The system will further safeguard sample quality, increase our operational capacity, and benefit the research of investigators who store their samples in our facility.”
The THI facility has a strong history of participating in NIH-funded studies, with an initial focus on providing storage and profiling services for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Cardiovascular Cell Therapy Research Network (CCTRN) and Cardiothoracic Surgical Trials Network (CTSN). The core also provides services to independent investigators. According to Camila Hochman-Mendez, PhD, Director, “We have substantial experience supporting the needs of large, cardiovascular clinical trial networks, and we are now just as interested in assisting independent investigators with their research, regardless of their disease focus. Our goal is to serve researchers from the TMC and beyond.”
Dr. Hochman-Mendez also emphasized the THI core’s capabilities beyond the safe storage of clinical specimens: in addition to sample storage through the Biorepository, the Biospecimen Profiling Core Lab can analyze the samples. “We function as a ‘research core,’ meaning we have the scientific expertise to provide input on a project’s experimental design and data interpretation as needed. We are here as a resource and take a very collaborative approach with interested investigators, advising them on the best use of their important samples to move their research effort forward.” She also noted, “We are extremely interested in collaborating with early-stage industry sponsors that need assistance with small-scale or pilot studies and don’t have their own wet-bench labs.”
In keeping with their overarching goal of supporting collaboration that advances biomedical research to eventually benefit patients, Dr. Hochman-Mendez points to her facility’s ability to readily integrate their efforts with those of other THI research cores. Darren Woodside, PhD, THI’s Vice President for Research, agreed, adding, “THI offers a range of interrelated core services spanning the translational research spectrum to investigators and sponsors in the Texas Medical Center and around the country, from detailed cellular analyses, pathology and tissue analysis, to preclinical disease models and clinical trials – all with expert scientific and clinical input as needed.”