I was watching an excellent presentation by Prof Daniel Catchpool, the current president of ISBER, at the Europe Biobank Week 2020, and he raised this specific question in a very insightful way. Anyone who manages a biobank has a multitude of constant considerations to juggle. These can relate to consent management, ethics, legislation, resource constraints and balancing budgets. It’s not often you can pause to think about the fundamentals of what you are doing. To realign your daily work to the principles on which your biobank was founded. Are enough of your samples being released to researchers or are they just sitting in your freezers? Is it time to step back and ask yourself if you’re biobanking or bio-hoarding?
What is biobanking for?
This sounds like such an obvious question but it’s so important to pause to consider it whenever you get the chance. You are involved at the leading edge of medical research with the aim of improving outcomes for patients. Helping to improve lives and save lives. That’s a pretty sobering thought. You are a key link in a resource chain that connects generous donors with researchers, with the aim of furthering medical science.
And there are two fundamental elements to that. The first is the receipt and careful curation and documentation of the samples. This is what takes up so much of your day-to-day time. The second is the provision of those samples for the worthiest research. This is the part that it’s easy to sometimes lose focus on. You aren’t just building a resource (bio-hoarding), you should be distributing that resource at the same time (biobanking).
The biggest is not the best
In my younger days I used to collect games for my first computer – a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (now I’m showing my age!). Back then kudos went to the person with the biggest collection of games. It didn’t matter whether they were any good, just that you had the most. Another craze at the time was collecting and playing a card game called Top Trumps. I have very fond memories of both (I’ve still got most of my Top Trumps but, alas, not the Speccy games).
But back to the subject – biobanking or bio-hoarding. Biobanks are neither about having the very best samples, like Top Trumps, nor even having the most samples, like the games collection. You are not in the business of hoarding samples. Their collection is only half of your role. Those samples must be used in research for your role to be complete and for your covenant with the donors to be fulfilled.
So, an effective biobank isn’t simply one containing a huge number of samples. It’s one that supplies a huge number of samples.
Effectiveness is better measured by turnover than stock levels. It’s about “churn”.
Is an empty biobank the best?
I recently heard the phrase “An effective biobank is an empty one”. Meaning that there are no samples sitting in freezers rather they are being used by researchers. That’s on the right lines but not quite on the money. It is true that samples that only sit in a freezer are not useful. However, many researchers need sets of samples collected over a time period for longitudinal studies and to fulfil those research requirements you’ve got to store the early samples so they can be matched with the later samples. Only then will your samples sound the “Jackpot” chime for that researcher.
Also, you never know what research is just around the corner so you don’t know whether those long-term samples at the back of your freezer will be useful in the future. But that’s a big enough subject to cover a dozen blogs! The main point is that the samples you keep must have good quality data or they have very little chance of being identified by a researcher. They need accurate and complete data about consent, donor profile, collection methodology, storage environments and chain of custody. The more complete (and accurate) the data the more desirable the sample.
How to maximise your turnover
First of all, you need the best quality data about your samples that you can get. Time spent on data quality always pays dividends. If you look at the samples that have spent the longest in your freezers there’s a very good chance that they have the least data known about them or the lowest confidence in the data quality. Samples with poor data simply don’t appear in researcher cohorts.
Use the best oversight tools. Modern Biobank Management Systems (BIMS) and Laboratory Management Systems (LIMS) provide data analysis tools such as dashboards that give an overview of your holdings. These allow you to categorise your samples by time in storage, level of consent, matched samples (tissues and bloods taken at the same time from the same donor), etc. That kind of data makes your samples very desirable.
Even if data is missing, modern BIMS and LIMS can provide tools to identify those data gaps enabling you to “fill in the blanks”. This can be from external sources like hospital management systems, spreadsheets or even paper records. Wherever the data comes from, once you link it to your samples their value to researchers increases significantly. And when that happens there’s more chance of them flying out of your freezers and away to the researchers.
Finally, there’s no point in hiding your light under a bushel. You need to advertise those valuable resources. Register your biobank with industry sites such as the UKCRC’s Tissue Directory and Coordination Centre at biobankinguk.org (Achiever Medical has an integration module available that automatically uploads your holdings). You can even publish your holdings on your own website. For example, Achiever Medical has its own researcher portal that allows you to publish your tissue holdings with anonymous donor profiling and security filters. Researchers are able to safely browse and request tissues via this portal. With accurate data and secure access your samples can act like an “Amazon for researchers”!
A final thought on biobanking or bio-hoarding
You already have the samples in your biobank but what you need to maximise your biobank’s effectiveness is to match those samples to researchers. With an effective BIMS/LIMS you can make best use of your tissue holdings to support top quality research. What’s more you’re able to honour your duty to the generous donors, without whom you wouldn’t be in business. Turning your biobank into a valued and well-used resource rather than an ever increasing collection of samples whose worth is never realised.
- Achiever Medical LIMS Analytics and Dashboards https://www.interactivesoftware.co.uk/2020/09/08/achiever-medical-lims-analytics/
- Building successful partnerships between funders and researchers
- Europe Biobank Week – https://europebiobankweek.eu/
- International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) – https://www.isber.org/