Smart approach to labelling

Tugba Sert explains how to increase laboratory efficiency with durable sample identification

The 21st century promises to be the century of biology, with advances in our understanding of the living world leading to dramatic changes in the way we diagnose, treat and cure disease. Along with those advances comes a rising tide of samples. Knowing exactly what every sample is, where it comes from and when it was stored, will increasingly impact laboratory efficiency. Scientists in all kinds of labs are now facing the possibility that existing methods of identifying, tracking and reporting on samples may be insufficient to the task ahead.

Sample loss

Among 350 scientists surveyed for the Brady whitepaper Sample Certainty: current trends in science and medicine, almost 60% reported having occasionally lost samples due to label failure. Lost samples can mean delays in drug development in industrial settings, and postponing or undermining patient care in clinical settings, or damage to findings in academic settings. All of these issues are directly related to laboratory efficiency.

Two key improvements can be identified to reduce the risk of sample loss and with it, increase laboratory efficiency. Firstly, reduce labelling errors by using a standardised barcoding system at the point of sample acquisition. This system can be part of a larger LIMS. Eliminating handwritten sample identification, however, already represents a dramatic improvement. The second improvement is to reduce label failure by using specialised laboratory label materials and printing inks that are durable because they can endure liquid nitrogen freezing, autoclaving, staining and long-term storage.

Best practice

Regulatory agencies are pushing for better sample preservation. If the need is to store samples for years, lab personnel should be confident that the label information remains clear and relevant. To ensure that samples are labelled with permanent identification, best practices indicate the following considerations:

* Use machine-printed labels. Removing the variable of handwriting can eliminate one of the biggest known risks in sample identification.

* Use labels tested for the environment. With many samples going into extreme environments during processing and storage, it is key to use a label material that has been shown to withstand these environments.

* Test all labels before use. Even with performance data from the label manufacturer, good practice calls for testing new materials through the entire sample-handling workflow.

* Move to automated tracking. Best practice calls for applying a sample identification code before the sample is processed, which can be easily achieved with a simple automated system.

Scrutiny of weak spots in the existing sample identification and handling process points to several potential improvements, including the adoption of standardised labelling methods, barcoding and the use of labels designed to withstand extremes in the lab environment. With minor changes, many labs can dramatically reduce the risk of failure in their sample workflow, protecting both their samples and the potential value they represent for future studies and discovery.

Tugba Sert is with Brady

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