By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Joel Guthridge, Ph.D., waved a security badge in front of a scanner, threw open a heavy metal door and motioned for me to step inside.
I walked into what appeared to be a long, enclosed hallway and began to shiver. It was minus-20 degrees.
I was dressed for the July heat outside.
Guthridge is a Research Associate Member at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and director of OMRF’s Biorepository Core. That means that in addition to his research responsibilities, Guthridge is the keeper of OMRF’s massive cryogenic freezer facilities, or the Biorepository.
Founded in 1946, Oklahoma City-based OMRF is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected nonprofit biomedical research institutes. It maintains 2,500 cubic feet of minus-80 degree freezer space and 7,000 cubic feet of minus-20 freezer space on the fourth floor of its new research tower.
Inside are stored cell lines, tissue samples and collections from OMRF’s past research in study areas such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Guthridge and Deborah Moorad-Watts, licensing and marketing associate for OMRF, accompanied me on the brief — and chilling — tour of the repository.
“This is a negative-20 freezer,” Guthridge said of our surroundings before pulling open a drawer that looked similar to a large safety deposit box at a bank. “And this is the negative-80 space. We have boxes of tubes stored in here, 100 in each box. We have a lot of capacity.”
OMRF has so much capacity in its Biorepository that it is now making it available to other Oklahoma bioscience researchers.
“We are at the point where we could very easily bring in other collections and store samples,” Guthridge said. “What we are looking for here is people who need access to this more advanced cryo-storage capability in the short term.”
Those might be scientists with tissue samples used in scientific research or cells from clinical trials that the Food and Drug Administration requires to be stored for a certain period of time. Or it might be vaccines or antibiotics that could be stored in case of outbreaks or diseases. Even seed stocks for grain could be stored there.
“It’s almost limitless,” Moorad-Watts said.
But it is more than just cold storage.
“The clinical data is the other aspect of that,” Guthridge said. “Say the Biorepository has the physical samples for clinical trials and collections. We have the whole data and information systems on the other side to carry the clinical data associated with those samples.”
The grand scale of the repository makes it more cost-efficient to operate than if each minus-80 freezer was in an individual laboratory, he said.
The tour continued throughout the fourth floor of OMRF’s new research tower where the Biorepository is located. Guthridge showed me the many redundant power and mechanical systems in place to ensure the Biorepository stays at optimum temperatures at all times.
There are even large canisters of liquid nitrogen in place just in case all the other systems fail. Security is a priority, too, with elevator access to the floor controlled by special badges.
Special rules also apply for those working in the freezers.
“Since it is so cold in there, people have to enter in multiples,” Guthridge said. “We have parkas and everything else, and no one can be in there for more than 10 minutes at a time.”
I shook off the cold when we exited the minus-20 cold of the Biorepository after about two minutes. Never has the balmy 72 degrees of a climate-controlled building felt so good.