Julia Jenkins, PhD
The advent of large-scale, high-throughput technologies has transformed medical research by ushering in “omic” science (e.g., genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics). Information technology has evolved in parallel, leading to the curation of large electronic databases that store big data. The availability of extensive collections of well-annotated patient samples and clinical information is fundamental to the success of personalized medicine and biomarker discovery. Modern biobanks are expanding their scope and size to support innovations that will advance our understanding of health and disease.
Types of biobanks
Biobanks are repositories that receive, document, process, and store biomedical specimens for research. Historically, these specimens were limited to genetic material, cells, fresh and paraffin-embedded tissue, and fluids such as blood, saliva, and urine. Recently, biobanks have expanded their scope to include digital holdings, such as MRI scans.
Biobanks have many different forms. The most common types collect disease-specific specimens used for clinical trials or basic research. These are typically collected by research units at universities and teaching hospitals. Disease-oriented biobanks may focus on a single tissue type, for example, brain, or multiple tissue types, such as breast, liver, pancreatic, and colon specimens held in a cancer biobank. Population-based biobanks are designed to link biomarkers with medical history and lifestyle information and hold multiple specimen types such as blood or isolated DNA.
Sample acquisition, handling, storage, and labeling
The acquisition of a biobank specimen must start with informed consent. Ideally, the consent is wide and enduring enough to allow the sample to be used in multiple studies with different aims throughout its lifetime.
Care must be taken to handle the sample appropriately, and rapid harvesting is needed for friable analytes such as RNA. Samples may need to be taken in sterile conditions or placed into relevant media or stabilizing solutions, depending on end use. To ensure sample integrity, shipping and transport should be under controlled and monitored conditions (e.g., maximum transport time, maximum and minimum temperature monitoring) and the chain of custody documented. Upon receipt, the sample should be anonymized and assigned a unique identifier.
One component of a proper identification system is labeling. One of the pressing problems with storing and retrieving biological samples at low temperatures is the difficulty of reliably reading the unique identifier that links each storage tube with the database containing sample details. Advancements in technology have provided numerous solutions, including bar codes that may be one- or two-dimensional or laser-etched, radio-frequency identification (RFID) labeling,1 and light-activated micro-transponders, known as p-Chips, which may be especially useful for smaller tubes.2 The capability to rapidly access specimens in cold storage is paramount to prevent thawing; therefore, it is crucial that the identification system selected is compatible with the IT system used.
Consideration must also be given to container selection (e.g., certain types of polypropylene tubes may decrease protein yield following extraction).3 Preparation of samples should be optimized when possible to the end use of the samples, and multiple aliquots should be prepared to limit freeze-thawing cycles. Robotic pipetting may be used to standardize sample preparation.
Good laboratory practice
Good laboratory practice, which includes training, documentation, and SOPs, is crucial to ensuring the success of a biobank and will ensure that the concept of zero sample loss is upheld, which is paramount because any compromise would deprive the community of a valuable specimen.
Biobanks have rich data sets derived from a large number of participants. The biobanks provide critical information and a framework that supports research. The number and diversity of available specimens and images will continue to drive future medical research and discovery.
1. Paskal, Wiktor, et al. "Aspects of modern biobank activity–comprehensive review." Pathology & Oncology Research 24.4 (2018): 771-785.
2. Mandecki, Wlodek, et al. "Tagging of test tubes with electronic p-Chips for use in biorepositories." Biopreservation and Biobanking 15.4 (2017): 293-304.
3. Kofanova, Olga A., Kathleen Mommaerts, and Fay Betsou. "Tube polypropylene: a neglected critical parameter for protein adsorption during biospecimen storage." Biopreservation and biobanking 13.4 (2015): 296-298.