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State-of-the-art biorepository a first in Africa
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communication / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Michelle Galloway
Published: 25/11/2021


The brand new, state-of-the-art Biorepository Unit that was recently established at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences makes storage of precious biological samples safer, simpler and more affordable in the long term.

The Unit, which is housed in the Biomedical Research Institute, became operational in 2020. Its role is to serve as a one-stop biorepository (including processing, -80˚C storage, -190˚C vapour-phase storage and shipping) for all biological research samples at the Faculty and beyond to aid researchers in contributing to medical advances.

What makes the Unit unique is the installation of the Hamilton BiOS system – a fully automated storage and retrieval system being used for the first time in Africa and the southern hemisphere.

“The goal is sustainability," says Rubeshan Nayager, business manager of the Unit. “The idea is that scientists should not have to worry about sample storage. We take care of the technical storage needs so that they can focus on what they do best – the science.

The Unit is a purpose-built facility offering a range of biorepository services to clients across academia and industry.

“Biological samples are precious – it takes human resources, money and time to collect them and can take years to replace them," Nayager adds. “We have a moral and ethical responsibility towards clients to handle their samples professionally."

Chest freezers replaced

The new system replaces the use of chest freezers. “There are many downsides to using conventional chest freezers – ice build-up, taking up valuable space, costly to purchase and repair, and they have a high energy footprint," says Nayager.

“Often these freezers are shared and the etiquette in using them may not be consistent – leading to samples being misplaced or not handled in the preferred way. Imagine a researcher whose samples are lost – they might have to re-collect all those samples."

The chest freezers each required their own backup, monitoring systems and dedicated staff. “In our department alone there were about a 100 of these -80˚C freezers scattered all over the place," says Prof Gerhard Walzl, Head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences. “They had a large energy and spatial footprint, and a life span of approximately five years, after which they become unreliable. It was a cumbersome, old-fashioned storage system that relied on multiple databases and manual labour to retrieve samples."

Potential for human error eliminated

In contrast, the Hamilton BiOS system has high accuracy, ensures sample integrity and eliminates the potential for human error.

“Clients submit their samples, we perform quality control on them and submit them to the BiOS system through a door. Once inside, the robot scans them and allocates them to a storage location, from where they can be reliably retrieved by a robotic arm," says Nayager. “We never go into the BiOS – it's entirely automated. 

“The accuracy is awesome," he adds. “There's much less chance of human error. The system can be monitored and instructed remotely, which allows huge flexibility. The lab manager can instruct the system from home and by the time she gets to work, the samples are waiting for the client to collect."

With his MBA background, Nayager directs the business side of the Unit, while the laboratory and day-to-day operations are managed by the laboratory manager – Ilze Louw – and her technical assistant, Ane Kruger. There are plans to expand.

The Unit follows the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories guidelines for biobanking, while working toward International Organisation for Standardisation accreditation – ISO 20387:2018. Laboratory staff are Good Clinical Practice- and International Air Transport Association-compliant and undergo training on domestic and international regulations for receiving and shipping biological substances.

Big boost for research

“With the old system you could spend days or weeks retrieving samples from the right time points from the right participants with specific outcomes from different freezers, different racks and different boxes. This often led to a breakdown in sample integrity because the cold chain was interrupted," says Walzl. “The new system is compact, has multiple back-up systems, and is coupled to state-of-the art databases that simplify the storage and retrieval process enormously.

“The sample-processing component will also make it possible for researchers who don't have their own laboratories to store samples," Walzl adds. “So, it expands the potential for sample-related research across the Faculty.

“It makes storage safer, simpler, and more affordable in the long term. It's a system fitting for a modern institute like the Biomedical Research Institute."

About the Hamilton BiOS system:

  • Provides secure, cost-effective -80˚C storage of bio-specimens using the latest cutting-edge technology.
  • Is a large-scale, automated biological storage system offering security and full traceability throughout the sample life-time.
  • Includes multiple back-up power systems, including generators and UPS (uninterruptible power supply) as well as redundant mechanical refrigeration systems with liquid nitrogen backup.
  • Can store most biological samples, except BSL 3 that have been propagated by culture and BSL 4 category infectious agents.
  • The BiOS L5 has the capacity to store 10 million samples, but is currently configured for 3,5 million – with plans to expand as required.​​

Photo caption: Rubeshan Nayager, business manager of the Biorepository Unit.

Photo credit: Damien Schumann