Biobanking Grows in Scale

Pharma IQ

There has been a steady flow of new biobanks and virtual biocollections over the past few years and sizes of efforts and collections are growing. However, biobanking presents a range of ethical, logistical and scientific challenges for the medical community.

Advocates of biobanking stress that, in the years to come, samples stored in biobanks could help find cures for, or even prevent, diseases like cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis and forms of dementia.

Those opposed to the concept cite concerns about how the information gathered and stored within biobanks will be used, the safeguards in place to protect it, data sharing and return of results. There are also those who question the value-for-money of large, government-funded biobanking projects.

As biobanking grows in scale and increasingly becomes a cross-border exercise, regulations surrounding the practice, in particular with regard to standardisation, are likely to be enhanced.

Large-scale biobanking

Biobanking projects vary in size from those used in smaller research institutions, which collect data related to specific diseases, to large countrywide projects that collect many samples for future use.

Britain recently completed collecting samples for one of the largest biobanking projects in the world; the UK Biobank. Some 500,000 people, aged between 40 and 69, from the UK donated samples of their blood, urine and saliva to the project, which were complemented by a health questionnaire and medical assessment.

Funding for the project was provided by public organisations like the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Department of Health and the Scottish government, as well as a number of charities.

Feasibility studies for the biobanking project were taking place as far back as the year 2000 and a smaller scale pilot took place before the main exercise was launched.

One of the main challenges the biobank had to overcome was logistical, as a process had to be put in place for the storage and transport of large numbers of biological samples.

Information sharing

Plans are also in place to assist with the sharing of biobanking information in Europe. The Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) was launched with the intention of allowing researchers access to stored biological samples across Europe.

It's thought that the project will help those in the pharmaceutical industry and medical profession gain better access to data which will aid in the treatment of disease and the drug development process.

The BBMRI will be accompanied by connected biocomputing centres to link data from samples with existing databases, which the European Commission (EC) claims will make "research simpler and more complete."

Biobanking projects within Europe are currently "often underused and underfunded", the EC believes. The UK MRC advises on European biobanking activities.

Individual European countries, are also looking at connecting their biobanks in a way that will make it easier to share information. With Sweden looking to make a national infrastructure to connect its biobanks.