As an important aspect of laboratory management, biosafety refers to the implementation of effective safety measures for handling both biological agents and microorganisms. With the application of effective biosafety measures, the risk of exposure to infection – both within the lab environment and the world beyond it – is reduced.
Based on the specific controls needed to contain biological agents and microbes, laboratories work according to the guidelines for one of the four biosafety levels, i.e. BSLs 1 to 4. Within a BSL-1 lab, only harmless pathogens are handled which are unlikely to cause disease in humans or animals.
Microbes in a BSL-2 lab are unlikely to pose a serious hazard, but in case there are serious infections, they carry a limited risk of spreading and can be effectively vaccinated or treated against pathogens.
In a BSL-3 lab, the microbes handled may cause a serious disease, even though infections can be effectively treated and do not often spread from person to person.
BSL-4 happens to be the highest category of biosafety and is assigned to laboratories where microbes pose the highest risk of serious, incurable disease that is easily passed from one person to another.
Marburg and Ebola viruses are two such cases of pathogens handled in these laboratories. Pathogens of unknown origin are also handled by BSL-4 labs but these need specific handling until more is known about them.
The dilemma faced in BSL-4 labs
BSL-4 labs are either housed in a separate compartment of a shared facility or situated away from other laboratory spaces. There are various ways through which workers are protected against deadly pathogens.
Researchers wear sealed biosafety suits which cannot be penetrated by pathogens. Researchers also use tightly-controlled laminar air-flow systems with ULPA or HEPA filters to remove pathogens from the air as well as Class III biological safety cabinets.
Precautions are taken in BSL-4 labs in order to protect the personnel inside them and to make sure that the microbes’ routes to the outside world are fully blocked. Yet, these limitations can aggravate the standard issues such as hardware malfunctions.
For instance, when a piece of equipment breaks down in a BSL-4 lab, the entire laboratory would need to be fully decontaminated and only then can a non-scientist such as an engineer be allowed to enter the environment to either replace or fix the instrument – a process that can take up to several days.
Alternatively, the lab can avoid sterilization and the equipment can be substituted, or parts can be replaced while the original piece or part of the equipment is destroyed in a fully sterile manner, for example, through incineration.
However, this presents a problem for instruments that include data storage, because it is impossible to replace the data and hence, these tools would need to be repaired. In these laboratories, laptops or desktops are generally used to record and store important data and sterilization of these devices is almost impossible because they would be easily destroyed in the process.
Using modern technology to solve the problem
In order to solve this problem, Vitl Life Science Solutions recommends that laboratory instruments can be equipped with advanced technologies such as near-field communication (NFC), Bluetooth, cloud computing, and internet connectivity, which would easily communicate with a PC beyond the sterilized lab, either as the central processing unit or as a backup for all lab experiments.
In this highly competitive market, the cost involved in creating accurate results is considered to be a major factor. Without entering the laboratory and completing the sterilization process, researchers can still study the data that they have obtained from inside the lab. This translates to significant time and cost savings.
The “internet of things” is now entering the laboratory setting, making it possible to integrate various instruments into a single information system, and components connected to this information system can then be controlled. In addition, temperature, carbon dioxide, oxygen, humidity levels, vibration as well as mass air flow can be monitored by hooking up Wi-Fi modules to an external sensor.
NFC, cloud computing and Bluetooth are “Smart lab” technologies which can be used to monitor the instruments from outside of the laboratory. Besides this, instrument usage and workload can be tracked, data can be streamed from electronic lab notebooks, and experimental workflows can be regulated.
Bluetooth provides an easy means of connecting electronic devices together, enabling data exchange over relatively short distances through wireless, radio wave technology. Sensors, which are integrated with Bluetooth, can connect to a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, and immediately stream measurement data that can be viewed, recorded, analyzed, and integrated with other software by lab technicians.
From a biosafety viewpoint, this is quite advantageous because, through Bluetooth devices, technicians can easily track their lab environment.
Near-field communication (NFC)
Near-field communication, also known as NFC, is a form of contactless data exchange between devices such as smartphones and tablets. With the help of NFC-based systems, laboratory data can be quickly and automatically updated and archived to enable accurate evaluation and verification of test results. When laboratory work processes are automated this way, it results in better time efficiency and also lowers the chance of human error.
“The cloud” refers to services that store files and data on servers linked to the internet, thus preventing the need to process and store the data within the laboratory, which can otherwise be costly and take a long time because of the complex software, computing expertise, and secure, high-speed storage required.
In addition, the range of in-house systems used for collecting and recording the data often lacks the required interoperability, which can slow down data sharing within as well as outside of the laboratory.
Vitl Life Science Solutions is a member of the ITL Group and has four decades of expertise and experience in the design, fabrication, and manufacture of life-saving medical technologies. The company believes that integrating cloud computing, Bluetooth, and NFC technologies into BSL-4 lab equipment could pave the way for a new realm of possibilities and most of the company’s products are already having or gaining this form of connectivity.