Developments within Biobanking
The challenges faced by the pharmaceutical industry in terms of discovering and utilising the full potential of biobanking are multifaceted.
Much has been made of the ethical questions raised by the storage of biological samples and data, however beyond this are the practical and logistical challenges it poses.
For the pharmaceutical industry, improved biobanking facilities means enhanced decisions on early drug development, while the medical community will be able to use the data to establish trends and potentially develop cures.
In Britain, the UK Biobank has recently succeeded in its aim of enrolling 500,000 participants within a study which it hopes will aid in the future diagnosis, treatment and prevention of chronic diseases.
The half a million adults that signed up all provided blood, urine and saliva samples for long-term storage and analysis, on top of completing a health questionnaire and undergoing basic medical tests.
Dr Tim Sprosen, chief scientist at UK Biobank, told the BBC: "In 10 or 20 years time, we will be able to analyse things in the samples that researchers haven't even thought about yet.
"We are custodians of this resource. The next generation of scientists, who might still be in primary school today, will use new tests and be able to unlock new secrets as to how we prevent disease."
The logistical challenge of processing and storing such large amounts of information means that a comprehensive system had to be established before thebiobanking programme commenced.
Back in 2007, Paul Elliott and Tim C Peakman, writing in the International Journal of Epidemiology, highlighted that the recommended protocol for the biobanking system was "extensively tested in a number of validation studies".
Once the samples have been collected, they are transferred overnight to a central laboratory where they are processed and certain elements are stored at ultra low temperatures.
After the initial tests which must be done on fresh samples have been carried out, the 15 million samples will be stored in two different archives. Some 9 .5 million will be in a -80 degrees C automatedarchive and 5.5 million in a manual liquid nitrogen archiveat -180 degrees C.
"Because of the size of the study and the numbers of samples obtained from participants, the protocol stipulates a highly automated approach for the processing and storage of samples.
"Implementation of the processes, technology,systems and facilities has followed best practices used in manufacturing industry to reduce project risk and to build in quality and robustness," Elliot and Peakman explained.
Elsewhere in Europe, the large Swedish biobanking institutions are collaborating with the aim of creating a national infrastructure.
The country has had a long history in the field of biobanks and, if created, the national biobank will be the largest facility of its type in the world.
Funding for the project will be provided by the Swedish Research Council, and just over half of this cash will be used to create the automated facility for the storage of the samples. Some 21 people will then be employed to deal with the coordination, collection and use of the samples.
Professor Joakim Dillner, from the Karolinska Institutet and coordinator of the Swedish Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure, said: "Several of the older biobanks, for instance those in Umea and Malmo, are so productive that we can say they are similar to academic and scientific research factories."
"We will standardise collection, collaborate on how to use current material, and develop quality standards and routines. Optimally useable specimens will be collected and used in an optimum manner," he added.
The Helmholtz Association in Germany is also looking to carry out a large biobanking medical study, in which it hopes to collect samples from 200,000 people.