The Lifelines Project was started in 2006 as a large-scale genetic study into the mechanisms behind healthy aging. In this interview, Jacko Duker tells News-Medical about the scale and impact of the Lifelines Project, and how Panasonic ULT freezers have provided a solution for keeping their irreplaceable samples safe.
Please can you give an introduction to the Lifelines Project?
The LifeLines project was started in 2006 in the province of Groningen in The Netherlands with the goal of enhancing our knowledge of the mechanisms behind healthy aging. Lifelines is looking for relationships between health and different aspects, including social, economics, and genetic relations. This is happening on a very large scale and involves around 165,000 participants across three generations.
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Our main aim is to investigate why some people remain healthy and active throughout their lives while others become disabled at a relatively early age. Within this, we are putting particular focus on the development of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, kidney failure and asthma.
Of course we are also open to requests from scientists to fulfil in their own investigation designs and specialisms on healthy aging. The factors being investigated within the study are quite broad, including lifestyle, genetic, psychological and social factors.
What are the implications of this study?
The long term impact of the study is expected to be substantial. For example, we expect information gathered here to make an impression on methods of pre-emptive patient care. Many chronic conditions have a pathway, and if these can be recognised and defined at an earlier stage, it can save both time and money for the healthcare system. Catching these conditions early and identifying people who might be at risk can also dramatically reduce the severity of symptoms and slow disease progression.
Some papers have already incorporated results taken from the Lifelines Project. Can you tell us about these?
LifeLines data and LifeLines investigators have both been included in significant findings and opinions on the topic of population-based biobanking. Many of these papers have been made possible by the grant support which LifeLines has been able to obtain.
These papers cover many topics including; universal risk factors for multifactorial diseases, Wnt signalling and Dupuytren's disease, and genetic loci influencing concentrations of liver enzymes in plasma. We are sure this is just a taste of the broad range of areas that the Lifelines Project will eventually influence.
Please tell us about the samples used the study.
When a participant is selected for the study, biological samples such as blood and urine are taken over a 24-hour period. Participants also take part in physical examinations such as BMI measurements, ECGs and pulmonary and psychological tests, and fill in a questionnaire to collect information on diet, medical history, childhood, employment, lifestyle and environment. Therefore, all the data collected on participants is very detailed.
Initially, we were handling samples from more than 200 volunteers a day, with an extremely large number of control samples being kept in storage for comparison. Overall, the LifeLines Project expects to hold a total of eight million 1.4 mL volume 2D-coded sample tubes (Matrix and FluidX).
What are the major factors considered by Lifelines when storing such valuable samples?
Initially, 30 to 40 ultra low temperature (ULT) freezers were required. As LifeLines was initially supported government funding, there were many standards to be met. For instance, we had to limit our power consumption in order to keep running costs down, but at the same time, reliability and security were of utmost importance since our work involves unique, irreplaceable samples.
Temperature stability was also particularly important to our researchers, as previous experience had taught us that there can be a temperature gradient from the top to the bottom of a freezer, or leakage of temperature around the door. This could make a huge difference when storing a large number of biological samples at very specific temperatures.
How did the Lifelines Project choose its storage equipment?
During the selection process, four freezer manufacturers’ products were tested to see how well they met our specifications. Top priority was temperature control and reliability, which are essential in ensuring the safety of our samples. To measure this, temperature tests were conducted on three or four different spots inside the freezers, based on specified temperatures ranging from minus 84°C to minus 76°C.
We also put the freezers through a stress test, where the doors were opened for one minute, then closed again for 30 seconds and checked to see how well they held and recovered their programmed temperatures. The nature of the project meant that the freezers were likely to be opened and closed regularly to reach the samples, and so it was crucial the freezers didn’t warm up too much or take too long to stabilise.
Finally, we monitored the power consumption of the freezers for a week, in order to see how much energy each appliance consumed. Once we completed testing, we found that Panasonic freezers were the only brand that achieved the required standards.
You mentioned how important safe sample storage is to your research. How is this ensured at the Lifelines Project?
Having reliable storage systems was vitally important during the set up of the study. The Panasonic freezers incorporate a number of technologies that ensure our samples are well protected. Microprocessor controls constantly monitor freezer function, including system and ambient conditions. Every aspect of the freezer environment is monitored continuously to ensure the optimum environment.
The built in system alerts also warn staff of any abnormalities so they can take action before problems set in. However, in the unlikely event that anything does go wrong, we are always sure of every 20 freezers having a working back up in place to protect our samples
Can you tell us more about your back up systems?
We found that a real benefit of our chosen freezers is the reliability of the systems they have to ensure any temperature fluctuations or faults do not go unnoticed. Freezers are continuously monitored and in the case of any anomaly, extensive audio-visual alarms and remote alarm contacts ensure that staff are alerted immediately.
High temperature warning equipment indicates when the temperature inside the freezers deviates ±10°C from the set temperature, and there are power failure alarm lamps and buzzers that activate in the event of power outage or irregular temperature increase.
An additional alarm and temperature monitoring system was installed at our facility, giving us a second layer of security for our samples. Panasonic customer service is extremely good, which is reassuring when so many freezers are in use at one time. We know that there is always a spare freezer available, so samples can still be stored in the unlikely event of a freezer being taken out of service.
Where can readers find more information?
About Jacko Duker
Jacko Duker has been working in the field of biobanking studies for the last 16 years, and is now working at the Lifelines project for the last 5 years.
Mr Duker initially worked as a laboratory technician, measuring album concentrations in uria and manually aliquoting and storing samples in the PREVEND study. This population study aimed to assess the value of measuring urinary albumin loss.
He now works at the Lifelines project, creating a complete automated liquid handling laboratory facility, including the tracking, tracing and monitoring of samples from their withdrawal to storage in -80 ULT freezers.
Jacko is currently working on the new build for the LifeStore facility for UMCG, which is presently under construction. This facility will reach new standards in both redundancy and design, and will house up to 150 -80 ULT freezers and the 8 million volume storage freezer robot BiOS; Hamilton.