'Spy' device helps protect vital samples in transit

New technology reports temperature breaches

A few degrees change in temperature can destroy valuable medical supplies and result in ruined experiments.

But now, iBug Sensors has created a tiny spy device that can detect if samples have been damaged in transit and alert the scientist before work starts, saving thousands of pounds of wasted time and effort.

Jonathan Redfern, co-founder of the company, developed the idea with colleagues working at the John Innes Centre of science and microbiology in Norwich.

He said: “Samples and reagents that have been thawed and refrozen cost lab workers a huge amount of time, money and frustration. Failed experiments can result in a phone call to a supplier saying their reagent was faulty. In these cases, the supplier has little choice but to send a replacement.

“Suppliers currently have no control over how the product is handled while it is transported and can lose hundreds of thousands of pounds through damage in transit. iBug tracking acts as a guarantee for both the supplier and the receiver.”

iBug is an electronic device that can be stand-alone or fitted into the lid of any Eppendorf-style sample tube or even attached directly to shipping packaging, providing an accurate sensor for both humidity (the hBug) and temperature (the tBug). When the delivery arrives, the recipient simply pushes a button on top of the iBug and tiny LED’s light up to indicate whether the sample has stayed at its correct temperature, or flash red or yellow to indicate the number of degrees deviation in either direction. This allows the scientist to confirm the safe arrival of their supplies, just as you would sign for a parcel.

The iBug has a range of applications. Insulin, for example, can be damaged if it is left in a hot car, but users need to have a supply permanently accessible. By using iBug as a temperature sensor, insulin users can be sure that their medication is safe to use.

Clinical trials often involve the transportation of high-value products and the outcomes of the trial can be compromised if these are damaged. iBug provides complete traceability, and if necessary temperature profiles can be downloaded to prove sample shipping and storage integrity.

The technology is also useful for samples stored within the laboratory; the life of the iBug doesn’t end when the shipped product reaches its destination. Holding the reset button for 10 seconds allows it to be reused in the lab.

Redfern said: “I trained as a molecular biologist and see many opportunities for an iBug. For example, when a freezer breaks all the samples in it are often thrown out, even though some of them may not have warmed up too much. It’s just not worth the risk of ruining an experiment. iBug allows the lab to quickly identify damaged stock. It’s also common for other people in the lab to move your samples around, sometimes taking them out of the freezer while they rearrange things. When you come back to get your samples you have no idea that they had been warmed up.”

Future plans for iBug include adding a RFID chip to act as identification to produce an inventory of a fridge and providing wireless communication of temperature profiles and warning alerts. Other possible applications are adapting a blood bag so it contains a bug, and integration into smart packaging.