Biorepository brings Antarctic cold into Oklahoma's summer heat
The new Biorepository Core at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation stores biological samples at temperatures of minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
At a certain point, the word “cold” isn't sufficient.
Cold is what you feel when the air conditioning is turned too low. It's the chill you get when you're caught outside without a coat in late fall or winter. It's the reason you bring a sweater with you to a football game.
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Cold isn't this. This is something entirely different.
In May, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation switched on its Biorepository Core — a series of interconnected freezers that are colder than a winter night in Antarctica.
Really. That's not an exaggeration.
The innermost compartments of the biorepository are maintained at a steady minus 80 degrees Celsius, or minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest temperature ever measured in the natural world was at Russia's Vostok Base in Antarctica. On July 21, 1983, monitors there recorded a temperature of minus 128.6 F.
That's the coldest temperature in the coldest place on Earth. Average temperatures (excluding wind chills) don't even come close to the cold in the Oklahoma City freezer complex, which is so dangerous that workers must enter in pairs and stay inside no more than 10 minutes.
So why do we need a mini-South Pole in Oklahoma?
“To reduce the degradation of biological samples,” said Joel Guthridge, 49, an associate research member of the medical foundation and one of a small number of people authorized to enter the freezers.
The biorepository is designed to hold up to 5 million biological samples in tiny 2 milliliter tubes. Most samples consist of serum or plasma from patients or volunteers who agreed to let the samples be used for research purposes. Other samples include RNA, DNA, biopsied tissue, urine, cerebrospinal fluid and more.
The freezers already hold about a million samples collected over the past 30 years. Some came from medical studies done with control groups; others document the progression of disease in an individual over an extended period of time.
Keeping the samples cold ensures that they'll be available when and if they're needed in the future.
“We want all biological activity to stop,” Guthridge said. “If you leave something sitting out, it's going to decay. It's the same reason you store your meat in the freezer.”
Three backup systems were installed to guarantee the samples stay cold. Two generator/compressor units run independently of each other, and liquid nitrogen can be released into the freezers if both compressors fail.
The biorepository, which cost more than $700,000, spreads across much of one floor at the medical foundation. The freezer walls, which are white and textured like a refrigerator door, create a rectangular space surrounded by the backup systems and temperature monitors. One door leads to the mechanical systems and a large locker filled with heavy coats, boots, goggles, face masks and gloves.
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