eLabBlog

Our Guide to Mastering Lab Sample Management

By eLabNext 7 min read 14 May 2024

In today’s rapidly evolving research landscape, effective sample management is fundamental to the success of laboratory operations. Laboratories, ranging from biobanks and diagnostic centres to pathology departments, must navigate the complex challenge of managing vast volumes of samples. Precision and efficiency are paramount as these facilities strive to uphold the integrity of their work and accelerate scientific progress.

The ability to meticulously track, securely store, and swiftly retrieve lab samples is not merely a logistical requirement; it directly influences the productivity, cost-effectiveness and accuracy of research outcomes.

In this blog, we will cover: 

  1. Types of lab sample
  2. Common pitfalls in lab sample management
  3. Digital lab sample management solutions
  4. 5 top tips to improve your lab’s sample management processes

Modern labs are under increasing pressure to enhance throughput and accuracy while reducing costs and minimising errors. Traditional methods of sample management, often manual and error-prone, are proving inadequate in the face of these demands. Combatting the challenges of sample management, innovative technologies such as Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) and digital lab inventories are redefining the landscape of lab sample management.

This guide delves into the challenges posed by sample management and outlines our top tips and best practices to elevate your lab’s sample management regime.

Discover how eLabNext’s digital lab solutions could boost your lab’s sample management

Types of lab sample

Laboratories across various fields handle diverse types of samples, each presenting unique challenges in terms of storage, preservation and management. Understanding these sample types and their specific requirements is crucial for implementing effective sample management systems.

Biological samples

(Blood, tissues, cells, DNA)

  • Storage: Biological samples often require precise temperature conditions, such as refrigeration or cryogenic storage, to prevent degradation. The risk of cross-contamination is also a concern, necessitating strict protocols.
  • Management: Tracking the lineage and treatment of samples (e.g., aliquoted, stained) is vital, especially in biobanking, where samples may be stored for long periods and used in multiple studies.

Environmental samples

(Soil, water, air filters, plant material)

  • Storage: These samples may change over time if not stored properly, with factors like temperature, humidity and light affecting their integrity.
  • Management: Traceability and the ability to link samples back to their collection point are essential.

Clinical samples

(Patient tissues, swabs, biopsy specimens)

  • Storage: Many clinical samples are sensitive to environmental conditions and must be processed or preserved quickly to retain their diagnostic value.
  • Management: Clinical samples require stringent labelling to protect patient confidentiality and ensure traceability. Compliance with health regulations and standards (e.g., HIPAA, GDPR) is also mandatory.

Microbiological Samples

(Bacteria, viruses, fungi)

  • Storage: These require specific growth mediums or inhibitors to maintain viability or dormancy. Controlling contamination is particularly challenging given the infectious nature of many such samples.
  • Management: Ensuring that microbial strains are not mixed or contaminated during handling requires meticulous sample tracking and personnel training.

Read our blog on optimal storage of chemical and virus samples

Material Samples

(Metals, polymers, semiconductors)

  • Storage: Some materials may be sensitive to atmospheric conditions, such as humidity or temperature, which can alter their properties.
  • Management: Tracking the batch and source of material samples is crucial, especially when these materials are used in high-stakes applications like aerospace or medical devices.

Each type of lab sample demands a tailored sample management strategy. This underscores the need for robust inventory and sample tracking systems that can accommodate the volume of samples, their tracking and labelling needs and storage requirements. 

Common pitfalls in lab sample management

Managing laboratory samples is a multifaceted task that brings a variety of challenges. When relying on traditional sample management systems, like error-prone manual labelling, these challenges become even more pronounced. Here are some common mistakes commonly made in lab sample management:

Mislabelling

Manual labelling, predominant in traditional sample management systems, is highly susceptible to human error. Incorrect, incomplete, or illegible labelling can lead to confusion in sample identification. Such errors compromise the integrity of data, undermining reproducibility and reliability of research findings. Mislabelling can disrupt entire research projects or lead to incorrect patient diagnoses in clinical settings.

Lost or perished samples

Logbook-based sample management systems often lack robust tracking and monitoring mechanisms, making it easy for samples to be misplaced or improperly stored. Without precise, real-time tracking, samples can easily be left in non-optimal conditions, leading to degradation or spoilage. The loss or deterioration of samples can waste valuable resources, delay research progress, and in cases of irreplaceable samples (such as those from unique clinical trials), result in irrevocable data loss.

Sample tracking mismanagement 

As labs grow and sample volumes increase, manual tracking methods such as logbooks or spreadsheets become overwhelmed. These methods are time-consuming, prone to oversight, and often cannot be updated in real time, creating bottlenecks in sample management. Inefficient sample tracking leads to delays in sample retrieval and can cause bottlenecks in data analysis, reducing the overall efficiency and responsiveness of research activities.

Errors in sample management can have far-reaching consequences, from compromised patient diagnoses to invalidated research findings. To minimise the incidence of these errors, many labs are turning to digital lab solutions. 

Learn more about sample strategy in our blog

Digital lab sample management solutions

Adopting digital lab solutions is a highly effective strategy for enhancing and streamlining lab sample management processes. A number of technologies are available to support these improvements. For example, a platform that combines a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) with an Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) such as eLabJournal, centralises sample management, storage data, study data and protocols on a real-time updated and accessible platform. Meanwhile, specialised inventory management systems like eLabInventory automate numerous aspects of sample management and tracking, significantly boosting efficiency. 

These tools not only simplify daily operations but also ensure that data is consistently accurate and easily retrievable. Digital solutions offer a range of features to streamline and strengthen lab sample management:

  • Automation: Digital lab solutions such as eLabInventory, available as a standalone solution or as part of our ELN + LIMS platform eLabJournal, automate sample tracking, data entry and storage management. Automating these critical processes minimises human error while enhancing operational efficiency. eLabInventory ensures that every sample action is accurately logged and standardised, leading to fewer errors and consistent handling procedures.

Discover the full potential of eLabInventory for sample management

  • Barcode labelling and tracking: By incorporating barcode systems, labs can ensure precise tracking of each sample from collection to disposal. Barcode tracking, featured in eLabInventory, simplifies the retrieval and auditing of samples, allowing for a seamless flow of information throughout the sample’s lifecycle. The use of barcode ID virtually eliminates the risks associated with manual sample labelling, drastically reducing errors in sample handling and processing.

  • Enhanced documentation and reproducibility: Digital lab solutions play a crucial role in enhancing the documentation and reproducibility of experiments. By integrating ELNs like eLabJournal, researchers can maintain detailed, time-stamped records of samples during storage and research.

  • Centralised sample data: Digital platforms such as LIMS and ELNs serve as a centralised repository for all sample information, facilitating easy access and data sharing across the lab. eLabJournal offers real-time sample tracking data among lab members, accessible from anywhere. Centralised systems also enhance data security and facilitate compliance with regulatory standards.

Discover the full potential of our Digital Lab Platform that combines a LIMS with an ELN, eLabJournal

  • Customisable Workflows: ELNs, LIMS and inventory management solutions such as eLabNext’s eLabJournal and eLabInventory can be customised to fit the specific needs of individual labs, optimising sample management processes.

The adoption of digital tools in laboratory environments is not merely a trend but a pivotal shift towards more sophisticated, efficient and error-resistant sample management. As labs continue to modernise, the integration of technologies such as ELNs and digital inventories will become increasingly essential.

Learn more about selecting the right digital lab platform for you

5 top tips to improve your lab’s sample management processes 

Implementing digital solutions is just one aspect of effective sample management. There are a number of best practices that you can adopt to optimise your processes and minimise errors. Here’s our top five tips to improve your sample management system:

1. Standardise protocols and procedures

Develop and enforce standardised protocols for all sample-related activities, from collection to storage to disposal. Clear, consistent guidelines and SOPs help reduce errors and improve efficiency, ensuring that all team members follow the same procedures.

2. Implement robust training programmes

Regularly train all personnel on the latest sample management practices and technologies. Comprehensive training ensures that staff are proficient in both manual and automated systems, which is crucial for maintaining the integrity and accuracy of samples.

3. Regularly audit and update your systems

Conduct periodic audits of your sample management system to identify areas for improvement. Regularly updating your processes and systems in response to new technologies, changes in compliance regulations, or internal reviews can help you stay ahead of potential issues.

4. Maintain a contingency plan

Prepare for unexpected events, such as power outages, equipment failures, or natural disasters, by having a robust contingency plan in place. This should include backup storage solutions and detailed plans for protecting and recovering samples to prevent loss and ensure continuity of operations.

5. Ensure robust labelling and tracking

Consistent, accurate sample labelling and tracking are crucial for maintaining the integrity of samples and ensuring their traceability. Digital lab solutions are the easiest way to achieve this, bringing invaluable automated labelling and tracking capabilities to eliminate human error, streamline processes and ensure accurate data management.

These tips are applicable to labs of all disciplines and sizes. By embracing these best practices, you can be sure to improve operational efficiency and research outcomes.

A smarter way to manage lab samples

Effective sample management is a critical component of modern laboratory operations, directly impacting research outcomes, productivity and cost efficiency. By embracing digital solutions like eLabJournal and eLabInventory, labs can overcome the challenges of traditional sample management practices and unlock new levels of efficiency. 

Want to discover the power of eLabNext’s digital lab solutions?

Book a personal demo today

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