Oh, the weather outside is frightful. But compared to the ultra-cold freezer facility at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, those freezing temperatures seem positively delightful.
With temperatures that dip as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit), OMRF’s “biorepository” houses more than 1 million biological samples gathered from research subjects over the past three decades. With 2,500 cubic feet of minus 80 storage and 7,000 cubic feet of minus 20 Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) space, the facility, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S., guarantees that scientists will have access to the samples for generations to come.
“This deep freeze is vital to research at OMRF,” said Joel Guthridge, Ph.D., who serves as director of the core facility where the biorepository is housed. “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. 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.”
The samples have been collected since 1981 from patients suffering from conditions such as lupus, fibromyalgia, sarcoidosis and multiple sclerosis, as well as healthy controls. OMRF physician-scientists continue to gather samples, and they’re also seeking to expand the types of disease models included in the collection through collaborative agreements with the Stephenson Cancer Center and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
“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. “It’s an invaluable resource not only to scientists in Oklahoma but to researchers everywhere.”
The majority of the construction costs for the $1.5 million facility were paid for by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. 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.
To enter the facility, workers must don gear worthy of an Arctic expedition: parkas, heavily insulated gloves and face shields. They cannot stay in the freezer for more than 10 minutes at a time, lest they develop frostbite, hypothermia or other health issues from the extreme cold. To ensure safety, employees rely on the buddy system.
“Two people go into the freezer while a third waits outside,” said Guthridge. “If something happens, they can press an alarm to alert us they need help. Timers also ensure no one stays inside too long.”
This sample collection has contributed to more than 200 papers and important findings from scientists, helping them to identify the genetic basis and mechanisms of diseases like lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome and multiple sclerosis.
The facility was built with one goal in mind: to provide a resource to scientists that will help them learn more about specific diseases.
“New technologies are being developed every day,” said Guthridge. “This super-cold facility keeps our samples suspended and ready for use, so we’re prepared to supply them to researchers in excellent condition and very quickly. As new research methods arise for using them, it means we’re that much closer to making discoveries that will benefit patients. And that’s very cool, indeed.”
Just how cold is OMRF’s Biorepository?
32 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 degrees Celsius, is the freezing point of water and the point at which frostbite begins to occur with prolonged skin exposure.
-31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 Celsius) is the coldest temperature ever recorded in Oklahoma, recorded in Nowata on Feb. 10, 2011.
-90 degrees Fahrenheit (-67.7 Celsius) is the lowest winter temperature ever recorded in permanently inhabited locations. The Russian towns Oymyakon and Verkhoyansk average minus 50-degree temperatures during the winter, and the ground in both towns is permanently frozen.
-112 degrees Fahrenheit (-80 Celsius) is as low as OMRF’s biorepository can go. The temperature is so dangerous that employees are only allowed to be inside for 10 minutes at a time even in full gear.
-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit (-89.2 Celsius) is the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth at ground level. It was taken on July 21, 1983 in Antarctica.