January 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 2)

MaryAnn Labant

The biobanking market, estimated at $7.88 billion by Visiongain, is poised to expand as researchers continue to migrate toward the use of human tissues and biomaterials for primary research, and pharmaceutical and diagnostic-tool development.

A large and difficult-to-estimate number of facilities, ranging from individual research laboratories to hospitals, academic centers and commercial entities, collect human tissues and biomaterials.

Collection specialization contributes to the industry fragmentation. There are physical or “real” biobanks, virtual biobanks, matchmaking services, tissue banks, and population banks—regional study cohorts composed of biomaterials with associated phenotypic, lifestyle, clinical, genetic, and environmental data.

Visiongain will provide a forum to discuss opportunities and challenges in the biobank industry at its upcoming “Biobanking” conference in London.

“Although there are vast resources available to researchers looking for human tissue samples with which to conduct relevant studies of new drugs, carry out basic research on mechanisms of disease, or identify biomarkers of disease progression or remission, most of these samples are not readily accessible to researchers without time-consuming legwork,” explains Margaret Clotworthy, director of Human Focused Testing.

Virtual Biobanks

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.

Academic Biobanks

Academic and other nonprofit entities also desire to maximize the human potential and commercial value of materials and data they hold.

According to Kristin Goldring, biobank facilitator at University College London (UCL), in 2008 UCL recognized the value inherent in its vast range of biospecimen repositories and initiated development of a coordinated biobanking plan. The aim was not only to improve governance around sample and data collection and use, but also to provide infrastructure—centralized contact points to reduce bureaucracy for researchers; web-based, searchable secure databases to increase sample visibility and access; standardized protocols; quality control; and long-term support for sample storage.

“It was challenging to encourage researchers to use the central infrastructure instead of maintaining their own collections,” says Goldring. “The key to the UCL infrastructure is that the biobanks provide a service, and principal investigators retain control over the samples they deposit. The facilities are more cost-effective than setting up individual collections. In addition, well-designed studies with access to samples and physical-storage facilities, supported by integrated informatics, are more attractive to funding bodies than projects that attempt to develop their own independent resources.”

Crucial to developing the centralized infrastructure was identification of a number of projects with varied requirements. There are currently close to 30 ongoing studies using UCL biobanks, and Goldring projects usage will continue to increase as more researchers recognize the ease-of-access and flexibility of the system.