MODERN laboratory equipment is, on the whole, so well designed and engineered that we might take its performance for granted.
Instruments have developed to the point where they offer better resolution and better reliability than ever before, provided they are calibrated and serviced appropriately, while liquid handlers, sample stores, and fume cupboards are all so dependable as to make it easy to become complacent about them.
And this, of course, is where the danger lies. We were reminded of that this week, with the shocking news of a sample storage failure in the laboratories of McLean Hospital in Boston, USA, which may have serious repercussions for research into various brain diseases.
The laboratory’s ‘brain bank’ held samples of 150 or so human brains, which were donated for research at Harvard University into autism and other conditions.
Sometime in late May, the freezing system failed. That by itself is a minor problem, because the system (a Thermo sample store) is protected by two independent temperature alarms and the store was routinely monitored twice each day by laboratory staff.
Except that, for reasons which are not clear, both the alarms systems also failed, and the manual check only involved looking at the digital display, which falsely showed a correct inner temperature of about -80C.
It was only when a scientist opened the store to retrieve a sample that the lack of a cold blast gave the first clue to the disaster. As luck would have it, the store was holding an unusually high number of irreplaceable samples, as these had been concentrated in the freezer while a specific project was underway.
This should have been a fail-proof system, with three levels of protection. Baffling as the reasons behind it are (foul play seems unlikely, but has been suggested), it should act as a reminder to laboratories everywhere that even the best systems can fail.
The one level of protection that could have, and should have, been applied here was to have samples stored in multiple locations. As it is, the Harvard brain bank happened to have put all its eggs in one basket.
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