When the University of Oxford lab storing COVID-19 samples needed an SMS alert system, it turned to remote monitoring specialist Omniflex for support. With this remote monitoring system, the lab is able to carry out the vital ongoing research that is helping to find the all-important vaccine in the coming weeks and months.
Located in one of the many buildings that form the University of Oxford, the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research is no stranger to deadly viruses. Having been established for nearly two decades, the Medawar Building is a cross-divisional, multi-disciplinary building focused on research in host-pathogen interactions.
This includes studies of major microbial pathogens, development of models to tackle epidemics and, crucially, a focus on the control of pathogens through vaccine development.
Much of the research in the facility has in the past been centred around HIV and hepatitis pathogens, with the facility most recently being involved in the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Oxford is playing a crucial and ongoing role in understanding the immunopathology of Covid and developing a vaccine. Its commercial partnerships with multinational pharmaceutical companies and governments across the world will ensure that the vaccine is rolled out in a timely manner.
As the virus spread through the population, the University began taking acute samples with consent from hospitalised patients and exposed health care workers. These samples were then transferred to the lab for storage where teams of scientists are using samples of the virus in their ongoing research that hopes to culminate in the development of a vaccine.
The safe and effective storage of this and other pathogens is vital in preserving their phenotype and preventing any damage to the cells. To ensure this, the samples are kept in two types of freezers in the Medawar Building. The first looks like a standard freezer, operates at -80 degrees Celsius and is designed primarily for blood plasma storage.
The second type of freezer consists of a vessel, cooled using liquid nitrogen and kept topped up using a liquid nitrogen feeder tank. These freezers operate at -180 degrees and each is capable of storing up to 100,000 individual samples of the pathogen. The facility uses around a dozen freezers in total, split across various labs in the building.
“These freezers are crucial in maintaining a uniform temperature,” says Dr Mathew Jones, a postdoctoral scientist working in the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research. “If the temperature fluctuates outside of safe parameters, we could lose a sample, which would be detrimental to our research, especially as it will become harder to get samples from patients with the disease as it wanes. This is why it’s vital that we’re able to track temperature fluctuations over time.”
To maintain temperature in the freezers, the facility uses an Eltek monitoring system. This includes hardware such as temperature sensors that operate from -200 to +200 degrees Celsius. The liquid nitrogen maintains a constant temperature of -180 degrees Celsius and a sensor is inserted into the freezer next to the samples. The data from the sensor goes to an individual data logger placed on each freezer, and these loggers then transmit their data to a centralised control system.
Each freezer was also fitted with an alarm that sounds when the sensor detects a temperature that falls outside of safe limits.
“One of the biggest issues we had was dealing with an alarm condition, a situation when the temperature would fluctuate outside of the set parameters,” continues Jones. “In a building like ours, with numerous departments and individual labs, there’s not always someone within earshot of an alarm.
“The nature of the research means that the typical 9 to 5 shift is not always feasible. Scientists often have to come into the labs in the early hours to see to an experiment they’re working on. Unless someone is physically present and within earshot of the alarm at all times, the alarm system is not fit for purpose. Even if they are present, not everyone is qualified and permitted to handle liquid nitrogen equipment.
“The system we were previously using could send SMS alerts when it detected an alarm condition. However, this wasn’t a very intelligent system. It would send out SMS alerts to all ten assigned phone numbers regardless of which freezer had gone down, even if it was one degree above the limit, and would continue to send out alerts every half an hour until someone turned it off.
“For about two years while we were using this system, I would be woken in the early hours by an SMS alert. I would drive the hour-long round trip into the lab just to find that the sensor had become dislodged and moved a few inches, so the temperature was being recorded higher than normal.
“Or, it could be that someone had genuinely opened the freezer door to remove a sample as the sensor is taking a reading. Because the system would only send alerts every half an hour, by the time I got to the lab, the temperature could have normalised.
“I would reset it and drive home back to bed. There was no real-time mechanism of logging in to see the data and assess whether the alarm was a false-positive or a genuine emergency.”
This is why the team at the Medawar Building turned to Omniflex. Based in Greater Manchester, in the UK, with operations in Australia and South Africa, Omniflex specialises in industrial networking, remote I/O systems, utilities monitoring, process automation systems, signal conditioning and alarm and event management.
Over the last 55 years, the company’s technology has been used in everything from the cathodic protection of civil and defence infrastructure, industrial alarm annunciators in manufacturing and the UK’s nuclear facilities to name a few.
“We supplied the Medawar Building with our Teleterm M3 GSM remote terminal unit (RTU),” explains Gary Bradshaw, director at Omniflex. “The device connects using a serial ModBus port to the Eltek Monitoring systems that control a number of liquid nitrogen and -80 degrees Celsius freezers.
“When the Teleterm M3 detects a temperature fluctuation that exceeds the allowable limits set by the monitoring system, it automatically sends alerts via email or SMS to designated email accounts or mobile phones anywhere in the world,” continues Bradshaw. “The user must then reply to acknowledge the alarm condition. If the unit fails to receive a response, the system escalates the alert to another set of mobile phones or email accounts.”
As well as alerts, users can also use Omniflex’s web portal, Data2Desktop, to access the system remotely using any web-enabled device, including smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC. The web-based system also logs all historical events and automatically generates a daily, weekly and monthly report summarising deviations and alarm events for conformance reporting.
“An alarm condition can present for a variety of reasons,” says Bradshaw. “It could be the result of a technical fault such as a compressor failure or overheating, or a power cut in the building. It could also be the result of human error, such as an operator leaving a valve closed.
“The liquid nitrogen freezers in the lab are connected to an automated system that feeds liquid nitrogen into the vats using feeding lines, replenishing them every 24 hours from a feeder tank. If an operator were to leave a valve closed, this could cause a loss of pressure in the freezer and the temperature to rise, leading to an alarm condition.”
The new system also offers greater flexibility. “When we approached Omniflex, I also asked them to give us a way of splitting the data into the individual groups that make up the scientific departments in the building,” says Jones. “We now have a system where the SMS alert only goes to the people responsible for that freezer, not to everyone.
“We also now have a way of logging in and seeing a real-time feed of the live temperature data, as well as over time. We can customise the notifications depending on the time of day, and whether it’s in the form of an email, or an SMS.
“A consequence of being able to track the historical temperature data means that we can also use it do a health-check of the freezer,” says Jones. “Because freezers can lose efficiency over time, as the vacuum and internal pressure falls, they may need re-priming or replacing. By seeing how quickly a given freezer gets up to temperature, we can see how healthy it is and plan in maintenance or upgrades.
“We’ve had a really good experience with Omniflex. They gave us a full day training session after the setup and we know they’re just at the other end of the phone if we need them, at no extra cost. It can’t have been easy to install this new system given the constraints of the existing setup, so we’re really happy with the results. They even had the attention to detail to make new cables for us, where a few of the existing ones had failed, which was much appreciated.
Following the success of the project, Omniflex has recently upgraded the system to add 4G connectivity, ensuring that Oxford University’s Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen research can continue the fight against COVID-19 unabated.