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RFID in R&D: Biospecimen Tracking

By Eric Newmark

April 14, 2006 | RFID technology has been widely touted as the up-and-coming solution for track-and-trace capability within the pharmaceutical supply chain. Although it is often thought of strictly for the securing of high-value prescription medicine, beyond this use lie further opportunities for the application of RFID to enhance security and chain-of-custody tracking throughout the life sciences. RFID tracking of biospecimens is one such area that is receiving increased attention.

Biological samples of human origin (biospecimens) are collected for a number of reasons. The most publicly visible biospecimen work done today surely revolves around the collection and handling of doping samples. This topic has received increased press coverage during the past few years, largely because of the recent scandals in professional sports involving the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. Another source of biological sampling, while less publicized, is crime-scene biological evidence, which also requires collection and controlled transport.

Further, in this time of increased concerns over bioterrorism, biospecimens suspected of containing biological weapons of mass destruction also require controlled handling and transport. Biospecimens collected from all of these sources require stringent control and management because of their legal importance, chain-of-custody requirements, and safety needs. But beyond this, some biospecimens also demand strict environmental guidelines during transportation, which is feeding the growing RFID opportunity for case-level temperature monitoring within cold chain distribution environments.

Tag, You’re It
Unlike the economics surrounding item-level tags, adoption of case-level temperature-recording RFID tags has an immediate associated return on investment. Whether a company is tracking bodily liquids or temperature-sensitive biospecimens, it is imperative to guarantee each unit resides within a specific temperature range throughout the entire distribution and delivery process. Until now, companies have attached temperature-sensitive stickers to deliveries and put temperature data loggers within cases; however, neither technology delivers the same value that RFID promises. Stickers show whether they’ve been exposed to a temperature outside the acceptable range, but lack the needed fidelity to know how long that noncompliant temperature was experienced, since just a few minutes may not be enough to compromise a biospecimen’s quality. Temperature data loggers are located within cases during transportation and provide more robust data, but cost between $40 and $100 each, need to be removed from the case upon delivery (they can be difficult to locate, since they are often buried under filler or padding), and must be hooked up to a specific computer to download the recording data, which is a costly and time-consuming process. RFID tags with this capability only cost $10-$20 each (prices continue to drop) and can be read without line of sight, increasing process efficiency, saving time, and reducing cost.

To put things into perspective, the return on investment expected from this increased visibility is analogous to hurricane Katrina’s effect on the grocery industry during this past year. Since the industry had no visibility into the length of time milk, cheese, and other produce had been exposed to warm temperatures, more than $50 million in product had to be discarded. Temperature-recording RFID tags would have provided the data necessary to potentially avoid some of this loss.

Dynamic control and management of biospecimens presents a growing long-term opportunity for RFID based on improved monitoring, tracking, and control of individual biospecimens throughout the collection, transport, and analysis processes. Health Industry Insights’ recent 1Q06 Leading Indicators in Life Science IT Spending Survey, which yielded responses from 183 industry leaders, indicated that within the life science R&D sector, biospecimen tracking was the most logical area for the application of RFID technology. Health Industry Insights estimates that nearly 5.4 million new doping and crime-scene samples are captured and transported annually and predicts that testing of RFID technology in this space will begin to increase. Biospecimen tracking was recently discussed in Health Industry Insights’ 2006 industry predictions and is further detailed in a report titled the Global Life Science RFID Market Forecast.

Eric Newmark is a senior research analyst for Health Industry Insights. E-mail:

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