Virtual biobanks are working to address the accessibility issue. Organizations such as Human Focused Testing and Scotland-based Tissue Solutions do not house samples; they access existing samples from a network of “real” biobanks and organize prospective collections.
“Both public and private repositories have an important role to play and both stand to gain from, and add value to, collaborations with virtual biobanks,” explains Clotworthy. “Researchers rely on tissue repositories to access samples essential to their work. On the other hand, tissue repositories depend on researchers’ requests for their samples to justify their existence, gain grant support if needed, and support their running costs.
“Scientists will go wherever they know that they can obtain quality, ethically sourced tissues, whether it is a public or commercial source. Scientists and tissue banks both benefit from a way to ensure that the scientists’ needs are matched with the repositories’ resources. Virtual biobank networks facilitate this and will only continue to grow in importance and relevance,” concludes Clotworthy.
Ann Cooreman, COO at Tissue Solution, agrees that there are significant advantages in working with a virtual biobank for both researchers and sample providers.
“There is an obvious symbiotic relationship between real and virtual biobanks that will continue to grow. A virtual biobank fills a niche in the market. The potential of fulfilling the request and the likelihood of being able to obtain rare samples is greater than going to a single biobank. Commercial biobanks do not tend to bank unusual samples; hospitals have no particular bias and often bank with fewer commercially sensitive restrictions.”
Tissue Solutions started with four network sites in 2009 and now has close to 60 different collection points spread over different countries.
“Virtual biobanks cannot exist without physical biobanks as they provide the raw material. As consolidators, they can and do provide a great service to the industry as they offer a wealth of experience and knowledge of where specific types of samples are being held and can provide good advice on the feasibility of obtaining certain tissue types.
“Real biobanks benefit from working with virtual biobanks,” continues Cooreman. “For example, hospitals cannot advertise the availability of their patients’ samples even if they only recuperate costs for providing to the research community. As a commercial virtual biobank we can advertise our services for providing access to such samples and help the noncommercial biobanks with the necessary funds to keep their essential resource operating. We also put material transfer agreements in place with our clients, where needed.”
Virtual biobanks ensure ethical sample collection by their sources with the required reviews, approvals, or licenses and make sure that the consenting procedures live up to international standards so that the samples can be used in commercial research.