When Dr. Linda Amoah from the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) started collecting saliva samples from malaria patients in Ghana in the spring of 2021, we knew that the samples would at some point have to make the over 6,000 kilometer journey to our laboratory in Turku, Finland. We also hoped Dr. Amoah could join us in Finland so that she could give her valuable insight and see how the E-TRF screening platform works. The ongoing pandemic made things a little bit more difficult than they probably would have been a few years ago, but in the end we were able to receive a hundred saliva samples from Ghana in just a few months, and Dr. Amoah will make the journey later this summer. In this blog post, Aqsens Health’s COO Riikka Erkkilä discusses the process of arranging the malaria samples’ journey from Accra to Turku.
Implementing best practices in collecting biological samples
Conducting high-level research requires us and our collaborators to make sure that the best practices in sample collection, storing, and processing are being implemented at every stage of the research project. Following these best practices from the very beginning ensures the high quality of our joint research project with NMIMR.
In this project it meant that the cold chain of the malaria saliva samples would be consistent from the rural areas of Ghana to the NMIMR laboratory, and finally to our laboratory in Turku, so that the samples would remain perfectly intact. The careful and accurate classification and diagnosis of the anonymised saliva samples and their corresponding, blood-sample based diagnoses by Dr. Amoah was also an essential part of the collection.
Biological samples crossing the borders
The shipment of biological substances and samples differs greatly from regular packages and requires specialized services.
“Normally you’d just order a courier to pick up a delivery, get a tracking code and at some point see it arriving,” Aqsens Health’s COO Riikka Erkkilä says.
“But with biological samples the whole process has to be carefully planned and followed; you have to have the right kind of transport box, order dry ice beforehand, and the right amount of it, based on delivery time estimation, carefully pack the samples in a proper fashion, and collaborate with professionals experienced in these kind of deliveries.”
When the arrangements for the malaria sample shipment began, Riikka started looking into the different possibilities that could get our samples safely delivered from one continent to another.
“Our first idea was to call DHL as with any delivery, but we learned quite soon that specific permissions and procedures are needed for dry ice deliveries. They guided us to a company called Cargosafe who are experts in arranging special deliveries. With their help it was easy to arrange everything, as they gave very good instructions on following all the requirements and were also following the delivery actively during its journey to ensure everything went as planned,” Riikka recounts.
Keeping the samples stable
The average flight time from Accra, Ghana to Finland is a bit over eight hours, which is a long time in transit for temperature sensitive biological samples.
“The saliva samples require a rigorous cold chain to stay viable and intact. They can be kept in regular wet ice for three hours after collection, after which they have to be put in a deep freezer at a collection hub,” Riikka explains.
Keeping the samples completely frozen during transit was crucial, as well as exactly following all the regulations and instructions needed for air freight dry ice deliveries.
“Three kilograms of dry ice was needed for each day the samples were in transit to keep them frozen. We also needed to keep a very close eye on the estimated delivery time to make sure there was enough dry ice left” Riikka recounts.
Completing the 6,000 km journey
The samples’ journey began in Accra, Ghana, where they were picked up from NMIMR and they made their way in dry ice to Lagos, Nigeria. Then the samples left behind the African continent and arrived in Brussels, Belgium, after which they made their way to Leipzig in Germany, and finally to Helsinki and then to their final destination in Turku, Finland.
“The delivery was tracked throughout the journey to ensure timely arrival – in case of a delay, we were prepared to arrange for more dry ice to be added to ensure the samples would arrive safely,” Riikka explains.
In the end, the hundred malaria saliva samples arrived safely in Turku just four days after they started the journey in Accra. Next, our team will begin processing and testing the samples to determine if our E-TRF method is able to detect malaria from saliva.