Life in the Lab

Cost-cutting ideas for researchers

Being a cheapskate can pay off
Lola Olufemi
By Lola Olufemi
May 30, 2013

Do budget cuts have you asking your researchers how accurately they can mouth pipette 2 milliliters or how much serum they are willing to donate for research? Well, you are not alone. After years of belt-tightening, the sequester promises to bring even more devastating budget cuts. With the current funding climate, scientists are searching for ways to stretch every penny. Summarized are a few ideas that can be implemented in labs to save hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of research dollars.

Need antibodies?

Purchasing antibodies can sometimes be a risky investment. Fortunately, suppliers are getting creative. For instance, Rockland Immunochemicals has teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania to provide its researchers with more than 200 free trial antibodies. In return, Rockland is asking researchers to send images demonstrating the utility of an antibody for the company’s catalog. And Rockland is not alone. ThermoScientific offers an Innovators Program: When researchers provide data that demonstrate an antibody works for an application, ThermoScientific provides a free antibody of choice of equal or lesser value to the antibody tested. BioSource LifeSciences also offers a selection of GeneTex antibodies monthly. Registration in the program is required; upon registration, a list of that month’s available antibodies includes a code that can be used to redeem free antibodies. Other reputable companies also are attempting to reduce the financial risk associated with trying antibodies. AbCam and Merck Millipore offer trial-size versions of certain antibodies, for instance.

Reward programs

Several biotech suppliers offer great reward programs. A conversation with your vendors can save hundreds to thousands of dollars. For example, Santa Cruz offers the Cruz Credit Program. For citation of Santa Cruz products in a publication, investigators receive 330 free Cruz Credits that can be used toward purchases. One Cruz Credit is equal to a dollar, so citation in a publication earns investigators $330. Once cited, the investigator also gets entered into the Investigator Awards Program, becoming eligible to receive 2,500 Cruz Credits. Meanwhile, AbCam offers an AbTrial program in which researchers use AbCam products for untested applications or in untested species and provide quality images of the experiments. In return, AbCam provides discount codes worth the full amount of the products tested.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Instead of tossing high-dollar items, it might be a good idea to see how to get more bang for the buck out of products. A few items that are used routinely in the lab, such as certain types of resins and beads, can be used multiple times before being tossed. Some companies boast that their resins can be reused up to five times. After purifications, resins can be washed, stripped, equilibrated and stored in buffer containing sodium azide to protect them from fungal growth. Properly stored resins can be kept for months to years.
Nucleic acid extraction kits always seem to come with more reagents than extraction columns, forcing researchers into purchasing another kit or more columns. These columns typically account for the majority of the cost associated with purchasing the kit. Instead of tossing used columns, consider regenerating them by soaking them for 24 hours in 1M HCl. The next morning, wash the columns thoroughly with several column volumes of water and then equilibrate with equilibration buffer. Those who’ve used this method say the procedure does not alter the binding capacity of the column and does not change the properties of the nucleic acids purified, and there is no residual carryover that can contaminate downstream purifications. Remarkably, the columns can be reused multiple times – some suggest anywhere from four to 10 times.

Homegrown enzymes

Commercial enzymes such as polymerases come with the convenience of aliquots of known concentration and standardized protocols but are not always the most cost-effective option. These seemingly tiny packages can cost close to a thousand dollars. For those with protein chemistry experience, weaning the group off some commercial enzymes can save money. This is not applicable to all enzymes; however, purification of recombinant PFU or Taq can be practically achieved. Purifying and standardizing enzymes can be a time-consuming endeavor initially, so determine if the amount of time spent on the effort outweighs the cost in cash. Some published protocols for purification and standardization of these enzymes can take a month or more; however, it comes with a big payoff. Once purified, high-concentration stocks can be stored stably at -80oC for years. Besides savings, purifying enzymes also will offer students an opportunity to learn a new technique.

DIY reagents

Commercial kits, ready-made reagents like precast gels, and buffers are convenient but are not generally economical. There are experiments that require kits and ready-made products that offer higher quality results in a fraction of time. In other instances, such as DNA isolations, a kit can be swapped out easily for traditional methods. Skipping out on kits and ready-made reagents where possible is not only financially smart but also allows students to understand what they are doing. So allow the group as a whole to participate in making reagents and pouring gels, and forgo the kits.

Don't dispose of the "disposables"

Research in a biological lab comes with the use of an enormous amount of disposables, including plastic consumables and glass product bottles. Just because they are disposable does not mean these items have to be tossed after use. Instead of tossing glass bottles, use them to bottle buffers. Also consider washing conical-bottom plastic tubes and old pipette-tips boxes for reuse. While these plastics cannot be used for experiments that require sterile plastics, they can be reused for buffer storage, staining dishes or blot preparation.

Purchase pre-owned lab equipment

Refurbished equipment might come from a startup that goes out of business or from research institutions that opt for updated versions. Choosing to buy used can save investigators between 50 and 75 percent. Some companies offer everything from consumable glassware to incubators or imagers. These companies also have technicians who ensure the restoration of used equipment meets manufacturers’ specifications. It is best to purchase items from well-established vendors with a warranty that is equivalent to the manufacturer’s warranty.

Get to know your vendors

Savings can come simply with having a conversation with your sales representative. Developing relationships with vendors can yield an insider’s guide to deep discounts and specials on products used routinely. Vendors also will offer freebies and samples of newer products. Besides getting something for free, this offers researchers an opportunity to try the product before buying it. Also scope out your vendor’s competition. Figure out how much can be saved by going with a competitor. Often suppliers will negotiate prices or even match prices if they know that they might lose business to a less expensive competitor.

Make a grocery list

Biotech suppliers boast of products made for the lab, but these items come at a price. These items can be swapped out for inexpensive alternatives found at a grocery or wholesale store. Items such as plastic wrap, foil, cleaning supplies and even dried milk for blocking Western blots can be found for cheaper. Before placing that purchase order, figure out how many of the products can be bought on a quick run down the street.

Save the trees

Ever notice how much paper gets wasted printing those lengthy manuscripts? What about all the space all those papers take up? Consider freeing up some space and saving on the costs of paper by having the group read articles on laptops, e-readers or smartphones. PubMed has an excellent app that gives easy access to research articles. Now readers on the go have access to publications from the convenience of smartphones.

Make friends and play nice

Approaching research from a collaborative standpoint can save you time and money. Instead of purchasing or making some products, it might pay just to ask colleagues who have them. Also consider partnering with colleagues when making a purchase. Often buying products in bulk can reduce the per-item cost.

Lola Olufemi
Lola Olufemi

When she wrote this article, Lola Olufemi was a legal intern at the Office of Technology Transfer at Emory University. Now, she is the technology portfolio manager for a branch of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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