Summers in Oklahoma can be brutal. Residents suffered through 28 days of 100-plus degree weather this year and a July in which the high never dipped below 90 degrees.
But at OMRF, scientists are pulling on heavy parkas, thick gloves and protective goggles to work in a much colder environment—the Biorepository.
“This is the largest facility of its kind housed at a nonprofit, and we have it right here in the heart of Oklahoma City,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “This core facility is an invaluable resource for our scientists and is vital to future research.”
Much of the construction costs of the $1.5 million Biorepository were paid for by a $1.32 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, with additional customization and safety features paid for by OMRF.
With temperatures as low as -80 Celsius (or -112 Fahrenheit), OMRF’s Biorepository is a series of cold storage facilities housing about 1 million samples from thousands of donors over the last 30 years, said OMRF scientist Joel Guthridge, Ph.D.
“Whenever a scientist does large-scale DNA testing to find genes that relate to a disease, like lupus or heart disease, they need samples from donors,” he said. “In order to keep those samples in the best possible condition for testing, we divide them up into small quantities and keep them very, very cold.”
Proper preservation freezes a sample—blood, tissue, saliva, etc.—in time for future researchers, he said.
“Everything about a donor at the moment that sample was taken is preserved in a coded, protected fashion, so we’re able to go back and examine someone’s blood before and after they started taking a medication or to see what their tissue looked like before their disease took a turn,” Guthridge said.
That’s important to scientists because research methods continue to advance at a break-neck speed.
“There was no DNA testing 30 years ago. Think about that,” he said. “Researchers are using new equipment and techniques to find insights they never could have when the samples were taken.”
Because the integrity of the samples is so important, the Biorepository has a three-layer backup—including an emergency system that uses liquid nitrogen, in case of a total loss of electricity.
The working environment for the Biorepository is -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), but when the -80 vaults are opened, it can cause the temperature to drop another 10 or 15 degrees, Guthridge said. Employees must wear heavy coats, boots, gloves and protective gear for their faces and are only allowed to stay in the freezer for 10 minutes at a time.
“To ensure employee safety we rely on the buddy system,” he said. “Two people can go into the freezer while a third waits outside. If something happens, they can press an alarm to alert us they need help. Timers also ensure no one stays inside too long.”
Guthridge said there’s space enough for about 5 million samples in the Biorepository, which could open up the possibility of housing sample collections from other institutions.
“This is designed as an FDA-compliant facility, so we could hold onto the kind of sample pharmaceutical companies store long-term,” he said. “And because it’s in a different geographic region than other biorepositories, OMRF is a good place for backup samples to be stored.”
While a trip inside the Biorepository was refreshing this summer, Guthridge said it’s not open to the public. Only authorized and trained OMRF staff members have access.
“You need a special badge to get on the floor and to gain access to the samples,” he said. “Otherwise, we probably would have been hosting a lot of staff meetings when the dog days of summer hit.”