Recently, a laboratory low temperature freezer was mishandled at Utah State University that caused lose of a decade of scientific research.
The ultra-low-temperature freezer contained both animal and human tissues that were part of a long-term cancer study at College of Agriculture. Professor and senior researcher Roger A. Coulombe, director of USU’s graduate toxicology program, said dozens of valuable biological samples were ruined when the freezer was left turned off. For many years, Coulombe’s freezer and lab were located in the Animal Science Building but were recently relocated to the newly constructed Agriculture Sciences Building. Coulombe said the freezer was transferred across campus without incident, but in a last-minute shuffle, the freezer was moved a second time to a different room in the same lab where it was plugged in but left switched off overnight.
Toxicology researcher Bunderson discovered the freezer when the temperature was already too high to safely preserve the genetic material inside. The work of eight people was jeopardized by the loss of the 9-years-long experiments.
The freezer normally maintains an internal temperature of around minus 80 degrees Celsius, which is necessary to maintain the quality of the samples inside.
Researchers at USU have discovered a rare genetic mutation in the DNA of turkeys that has been shown to increase the animals’ susceptibility to certain diet-related carcinogens. The mutation silences the effect of a naturally occurring enzyme that helps protect against the development of liver cancer in the birds. By identifying the mutation in the turkey DNA, researchers may have a better understanding of potential warning signs in other animals, including humans.
The tissue banks and collections of frozen DNA inside the freezer were the work of dozens of students and technicians from different disciplines over the course of many years. Every sample inside has been destroyed because the internal temperature increased so dramatically.
“The basis of much of our work is to correlate enzyme activity with gene sequence, both of which we have determined are sensitive to temperatures higher than minus 80 degrees,” he said. “Good science demands properly handled research samples.”
Some samples might still be usable, but it’s doubtful since in scientific research all data are considered unreliable if they cannot be reproduced by independent team using same biological materials, which becomes impossible when samples are gone.
Even moderate changes in temperature inside the laboratory freezer make experimental results unreliable. Forming ice crystals puncture cells that allows molecules to react with each other when the sample is thawed.
“This is a human error,” said Cockett. “A mistake happened and a lot of people were involved.”
Vitale says an insurance claim is in the works through the state’s division of risk management for between $650,000 and $1 million to compensate for the lost samples. It’s still unclear how much will be approved and, as of last week, Vitale says the claim is still under investigation.
In the meantime, Dave Cowley, vice president of business and finance, advanced Coulombe’s team $100,000 to jump-start a process to recreate the lost samples. Coulombe says he’ll use the money to begin replenishing the tissue banks and will likely have to hire additional staff to repeat years of experiments. In all, he says, about $2 million in federal grant money was invested in the samples.
Freezer mishaps are rare, and the companies that manufacture the machines say they can provide safe and reliable sample storage for 30 years. But errors happen, and lifetimes of work are at stake if the deep freezers malfunction or are mismanaged.
A similar incident occurred last month at Harvard University when a freezer failure at the school’s Brain Tissue Resource Center damaged 93 human brains that had been donated for autism research. A spokesperson for the center said the material was a “priceless collection,” and Harvard officials say an investigation is under way to discover what happened with the freezer.
One of Cockett’s own freezers was inadvertently switched off several years ago after a lab technician misused the control panel. Cockett said the person mistakenly thought turning the key meant locking the freezer lid when, in fact, it shut the unit completely down.
USU’s office of risk management has now implemented the use of a safety net to mitigate against future freezer failures. Campuswide, lab freezers are now connected to the Internet and can alert their users via electronic message when internal temperatures exceed a predetermined value.
The question now is how quickly Coulombe’s researchers can duplicate their results with less time and fewer resources than they’ve had over the years. “It’s a disruption of significant proportions to us,” Coulombe said. “We were part-way through a lot of projects, but it jeopardizes our progress because we can’t take planned steps to bring these studies to completion.”
Coulombe said he’ll make sure his students get the opportunity to finish their academic programs but believes it could take two years of backtracking to get his research back on schedule. Moving his life’s work from his old lab to a new building, he said, turned out to be a nearly seamless transition.
“A 1,000-mile journey happened perfectly,” he said. “But at the last step around the corner, someone stubbed their toe, so to speak.”