Freezerworks Supports Research in South Africa with Effective Sample Management

Slee Mbhele is a Clinical Trial Data Manager for the University of Cape Town, Division of Medical Microbiology. The Division has multiple sample collection sites throughout Southern Africa, where it conducts up to 12 ongoing clinical trials, focusing on tuberculosis and childhood pneumonia. These trials are funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, located in Seattle, Washington. The trial results are reported back to the foundation on a quarterly basis.

The lab collects many types of samples, with certain samples coming from enrolled patients as often as every two weeks. One major project the Division is working on is the Drakenstein Child Lung Health Study, for which patients are enrolled and are followed up to five years of life. To date, more than 100,000 samples have been collected for the study, and patients are still being enrolled. The goal of the project is to investigate longitudinally the epidemiology and etiology of childhood pneumonia, including risk factors for development and progression from mild to severe forms of the disease and its impact on the health of the child.

With 12 ongoing trials, the Division’s laboratory and biorepository is consistently busy and getting busier, with specimens coming in from sites and going out to researchers. The lab managed the sample inventory through a handwritten log on a piece of paper. According to Mbhele, this process made it very difficult to track and manage the lab samples. It was a major undertaking and challenge to merely send out samples to local hospitals because the paper system was difficult to follow and fraught with errors.  Laboratory personnel spent too much of their time trying to track down samples that simply could not be found. This system also left individuals unaccountable for entering or making changes to the samples, greatly affecting the integrity of the samples. It was a liability for the University, keeping Mbhele up nights. She knew they needed to find a solution to track and manage samples.

To solve this problem, the Division began looking for a sample management system that was user-friendly, accurate, allowed for movement of samples with an audit trail, linked samples with aliquots, identified sample type, and increased accountability for tracking and maintaining samples.  Personnel had learned

about Freezerworks while attending a data management workshop in the U.S., and soon discovered that a neighboring lab was already an established Freezerworks customer. They decided to visit the lab to see Freezerworks in action. The lab technicians there explained how Freezerworks had been a tremendous help with managing their own TB studies and vaccines.

Mbhele and her team contacted the Freezerworks offices in Seattle. In time, the support staff configured a version of Freezerworks Unlimited to meet the specific needs of the Department.

Freezerworks Unlimited allowed the lab to assign a unique identifier and barcode to every sample and aliquot to simplify the storing and tracking process. The lab techs are now able to do all the prep work before they collect samples. They create the sample records in Freezerworks, pre-printing and barcode labeling the vials, and then send them out as kits to be filled at the collection sites. Streamlining the sample collection and data storage workflow has tremendously benefited the integrity of the research data, as the samples and aliquots remain linked with the patient ID number throughout the process. Besides data integrity, workflow and productivity have increased as well, because the technicians can always locate their specimens in the freezers. “You know you can always go back to the source, and you know what you have in the freezers, because it is exactly where you placed it,” Mbhele said.

Mbhele estimates that with Freezerworks, lab researchers are no longer spending 60% of their time tracking down samples, because they are able to quickly locate samples with the inventory system now in place. “Freezerworks takes the headache out of sample reception and storage,” Mbhele said, adding that it also now provides the lab with the accountability and security features once lacking to maintain the integrity of the samples.  Because it has simplified the sample collection and tracking process for the lab, the staff now has more time to focus on clinical diagnosis and scientific discovery.

The division is growing rapidly, and the biorepository today holds more than 200,000 aliquots of biological specimens, as well as thousands more processed samples (e.g., extracted DNA and purified isolates). According to Mbhele, improvements in sample management through Freezerworks will play an important part in allowing the laboratory to effectively manage that growth, while satisfying the requirements and meeting the needs for sample management.