Your guide to shipping biological samples

If you’re looking to send biological samples to, from or within the UK, then you’ll need a robust understanding of the regulations designed to transport these unique types of goods (or how to work with someone who does!).

From DNA and RNA to vaccines and urine specimens, the proper handling and transportation of biological samples are pivotal in maintaining their integrity and usefulness.

This applies no matter the type of operation you are running (such as a hospital or a laboratory) or the industry you work in (such as healthcare or biotech).

Below, we’ll outline best practices for the storage and transportation of biological samples and shed light on the regulations that govern their movement. We’ll also highlight the importance of understanding the unique requirements of each sample type, as well as the role of specialised courier services in ensuring a successful shipping process.

Jag Express supports customers with sending biological samples throughout the UK.

What is a biological sample?

A biological sample refers to any material that contains biological matter, such as cells or tissues. These samples are often used by organisations for analysis, research, or diagnostic purposes.

They are often delicate and can be highly sensitive to external conditions, making proper handling and transportation essential to maintain their integrity and usefulness.

Examples of commonly shipped biological samples

Biological samples encompass a wide range of materials. Here are some common examples of regularly shipped biological specimens:

DNA

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) samples are widely used in genetic research, health screening and forensics. These samples are crucial for understanding all organic life, hereditary diseases and evolutionary relationships. In addition, the rise of platforms like 23andMe and Ancestry.com has made shipping biological samples containing DNA incredibly popular in recent times.

Sending DNA samples internationally involves adhering to strict regulations to prevent contamination and ensure compliance. We’ll explain how DNA is usually transported below.

RNA

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) samples play a role in gene expression studies, viral detection and vaccine development. Different types of RNA, such as messenger RNA (mRNA) and microRNA, provide insights into cellular processes and disease mechanisms.

When considering RNA transport and delivery, factors such as temperature sensitivity, contamination prevention and regulatory compliance take centre stage.

Vaccines

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the shipping of vaccines has been in high demand. Vaccine logistics and development rely on the safe transportation of biological materials, including antigens and adjuvants. Proper handling of vaccines or their components ensures their stability and effectiveness.

Diagnostic samples

Human biological samples are frequently used for medical diagnostics, and can be anything from a skin scraping, to a vial of blood or a urine sample and anything in between. These samples are often non-infectious, but proper handling is still essential.

Sending DNA is a courier service that Jag Express can help with.
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Who regulates the transport of biological samples?

Transporting biological samples involves adhering to various regulations to ensure safety, prevent contamination and comply with legal requirements.

IATA regulations

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) provides guidelines for the safe transport of biological materials in the UK and around the world by air, including samples that may contain infectious substances.

IATA’s regulations classify substances into categories based on their potential risk to public health. Some applicable regulations include the Infectious Substances Shipping Regulations (ISSR) and IATA’s Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR).

Local UK transport authorities

Within the UK, the transportation of biological samples is also regulated by governing bodies.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Department for Transport (DfT) may have specific requirements depending on the nature of the samples and the mode of transportation.

How do you send biological samples?

Sending biological samples involves several key steps to ensure their safety and integrity during transit. We’ll explain this process step-by-step below.

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1. Ensure proper packaging

The proper packaging of biological samples is essential to prevent leakage, breakage or contamination. Packaging requirements vary based on the type of sample and its potential risk.

Packing Instruction 650, published by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, applies to UN3373 biological substances when shipping biological samples via aircraft. This includes shipping your goods in:

  •         A primary receptacle (such as a swab tube or plastic slide holder)
  •         Secondary packaging (for example, a leak-proof or shatterproof biohazard bag)
  •         Rigid outer packaging (which is often a cardboard box with some internal padding)

For DNA and RNA samples, ensure the correct inner packaging is used when dealing with frozen shipments. Some materials will become brittle and shatter in the -78°C (-108F) of dry ice.

Vaccines and other biological substances should be packaged in leak-proof and durable containers that can withstand potential temperature fluctuations and physical stress.

2. Ensure proper labelling

Clear and accurate labelling is critical to inform handlers of the contents and potential hazards of the shipment. Labels should include information about the nature of the samples and any hazards they might pose.

They should also include special handling instructions (such as “Fragile” or “Keep Frozen”), and contact details of the sender and receiver.

If you’re engaged in UN3373 Category B shipping (see below), then your goods should be clearly marked “UN3373”.

3. Use dry ice

Dry ice, which is solid carbon dioxide at extremely low temperatures, is a reliable cooling agent that maintains sub-zero temperatures during transportation. Incorporating dry ice into the shipping process can ensure that samples remain frozen and unaltered, making it an essential tool for maintaining the integrity of sensitive biological materials.

The dry ice should be securely packed in the package to prevent direct contact with the biological samples, avoiding potential freezing and damaging effects.

Proper ventilation is also essential when using dry ice, as it sublimates (turns from a solid to a gas) and releases carbon dioxide gas. This gas then purges oxygen from the environment and, if in an enclosed space, increases the risk of asphyxiation.

4. Categorise your shipment (if infectious)

If your biological samples contain infectious substances, they are hazardous goods and so categorising them correctly is crucial. IATA provides two main categories, based on the risk the sample poses:

Category A (UN3373)

Samples that are capable of causing permanent disability, life-threatening or fatal diseases in humans fall under Category A. These samples have strict packaging and labelling requirements you’ll need to be familiar with.

Category B (UN3373)

Samples that do not meet the criteria for Category A are classified as Category B.

These categories are known or suspected of containing less virulent pathogens. Some examples include blood samples containing HIV that are being sent for HIV testing or patient blood sample suspected to contain Streptococcus A.

Proper packaging and labeling are still necessary to prevent leakage or contamination for UN3373 transport.

Biological sampleTransportation guidance
DNADNA should be stored in clean and sterile equipment to prevent contamination that could compromise the sample’s quality.

They should also be stored at low temperatures, usually between -20°C to -80°C, to prevent degradation.

RNALike DNA, RNA samples should also be stored at ultra-low temperatures.

You should ideally use specialised freezers designed for RNA transport and delivery.

VaccinesEach vaccine has specific requirements for storage, so make sure you follow their specific manufacturer’s guidelines. Ensure that the vaccines are collected and transported within the recommended temperature range to maintain their efficacy.

Vaccines that require refrigeration should be generally stored at a temperature between 2°C and 8°C (35.6°F to 46.4°F).

UrineUrine samples should be stored in a refrigerator at around 4°C. Cold storage helps prevent bacterial growth and changes in the sample composition.
Category A transport (infectious substances)Category A infectious substances are to be packaged in triple packaging and compliant with ICAO Packing Instruction 620.

They have names when shipping “Infectious substances, affecting humans” (UN 2814) or “Infectious substances, affecting animals” (UN 2900). You must ensure the goods are labelled correctly.

Category B transport (infectious substances)Category B (UN3373) substances can be shipped frozen or on dry ice.

UN3373 packaging must comply with ICAO Packing Instruction 650 when shipping by air. Packaging must be of good and strong quality so that it can withstand normal transport conditions.

This includes a primary receptacle (container holding the sample), a secondary packaging (protective container), and an outer packaging (shipping container).

See also the Guidance Note published by the UK Department of Transport which applies to category B specimen transport.

5. Consult transport professionals for guidance

Given the complexity of shipping biological samples, it’s advisable to work with a specialised courier service that is experienced in handling such shipments, including a specialist UN3373 courier.

These professionals can provide guidance on packaging, labelling and documentation, ensuring compliance with regulations for transportation.

Are you looking for specialised biological sample courier?

If you’re looking for a specialist in biological specimen shipping, finding a reliable and experienced biological sample courier is essential.

Jag Express has a proven track record in transporting sensitive materials while adhering to international and local regulations for the healthcare, pharmaceutical and biotech sectors.

Our expertise in packaging, labelling, documentation, and compliance will ensure that your valuable biological samples reach their destination safely and with the highest quality intact.

Whether you’re dealing with DNA transport, RNA delivery, vaccine logistics or the courier of other biological samples, following proper procedures from collection to delivery is essential to maintain the integrity and usefulness of these valuable consignments.

By partnering with us, your organisation can ensure that its biological samples are in safe hands throughout the shipping process.

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