A Biobank – What is in it for a Researcher?
I have had the privilege to follow the development of Finnish biobanking for almost eight years. A lot has happened since we collected the first clinical samples in 2011 as a collaborative effort of FIMM and HUS, the pioneers of clinical biobanking in Finland.
As we know, Finnish researchers have long tradition in collecting samples and data for medical and health research. Many of these collections are world-known and have served as a great source of national and international research collaborations. However, collections that are scattered, narrowly collected and only for a few specific study purposes, can no longer serve modern medical research.
The Act that “changed the game”
Fortunately, at least from my point of view, we have a Biobank Act that came into effect in 2013 to change the field of sample and data collection and their usage in research. This Act gave to word ”biobank” an accurate meaning, defining it as a unit for collecting and storing samples and information associated with them for future biobank research. With biobank research the Act refers to research utilizing the samples and information contained in a biobank for promoting health, understanding the mechanism of diseases or developing products and treatment practices used in health care.
The Biobank Act enables novel usage of samples and data by allowing asking the sample donor for broad consent for unspecified future research purposes. At the same time, sample and data collection is seen more professional since biobanks must be registered by the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira) and are also supervised by it.
Currently, there are eight biobanks is Finland. Some of them are fully functional, others more or less in the developing phase. Compared to the situation three years ago, when the Biobank Act came into force, the development is this field has been enormous. Nowadays there are e.g. millions of tissue samples in Auria and Helsinki Biobanks, remarkable amount of viably frozen bone marrow cells in the Finnish Hematology Registry and Biobank (FHRB), not to mention THL Biobank’s huge DNA, blood and data collections. The number of prospectively collected blood and tissue samples in all Finnish biobanks is also continuously growing.
Benefits to the researchers
To me, the biggest advantage of biobanks is that research can progress faster. Biobanks can provide a readily accessible resource of high quality, well-annotated samples combined with patients’ medical data. This saves a huge amount of time that researchers would otherwise spend recruiting volunteers to build a sufficient cohort for their studies. In addition, biobanked materials are collected in a standardized and pseudonymized manner ensuring sample donor’s confidentiality and meeting the legal and ethical requirements.
Samples collected earlier by individual research groups for restricted study purposes can also be transferred into a biobank and used in biobank research. In my opinion, this is an excellent way to use samples more efficiently. This transfer has already been started at least in Helsinki area and experiences have been positive. There is also a possibility for cooperation with biobanks on collecting prospective samples – this way both the researcher and the biobank would benefit the most. In addition, the Finnish biobanking society is open for new ideas on sample collection: please share us your ideas!
Another angle in biobanking is the access to samples and data. Currently four biobanks (Auria, THL, Helsinki and FHRB) are accepting sample and data applications from research groups from all over the world. In each biobank, an independent panel of experts reviews and evaluates the applications with predefined and published criteria. Based on this evaluation, the director of the biobank makes the decision on sample and data delivery. Detailed information and forms can be found on each biobank’s website. As an additional benefit, this one application is usually enough for evaluating also the ethical aspects of the study and thus the researcher doesn’t have to contact many authorities.
Once researchers get access to biobanked samples and data, they also engage to return the raw data and/or the results of the study to the biobank to enhance future research. This way biobanks are able to save the precious sample material for the best possible purpose and also serve future applicants better.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been involved in biobanking for several years. But just this autumn I got a new role: I’m also a customer, not only a biobank employee. I am studying biomarkers in pulmonary carcinoids and, understandably, I will apply for the material needed from some of the Finnish biobanks. I am eagerly waiting for this new angle into biobanking!
Now, at the end of November and Movember, I would like to remind you about one very important way to be involved in biobanking: by donating a sample. Every sample counts and we will appreciate every donation! More information can be found on e.g. Helsinki Biobank’s website osanatiedetta.fi.