How patients donating samples can support medical research
Biobanks collect and store tissue, cell, blood and urine samples to find out more about diseases
Biobanks seek to collect samples from patients and store them safely for researchers who could find them useful: perhaps tomorrow, or perhaps even years down the line. Photograph: Thinkstock
If you want to understand more about a particular disease and identify new ways to treat it, then tissue, cells, blood and perhaps even urine from patients with that disease can hold valuable answers.
That’s why biobanks seek to collect samples from patients and store them safely for researchers who could find them useful: perhaps tomorrow, or perhaps even years down the line.
“Biobanking is the collection and storage of samples that are collected via patient donations,” explains Blanaid Mee. She manages the Biobank Ireland Trust facility at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, which focuses on cancer.
“Patients who have cancer can donate tissue from their tumour when it is removed in surgery and, where possible, normal tissue surrounding the tumour, as well as blood samples.
“We collect them and store them, then researchers apply to use the samples in their studies to learn more about the cancer, and also, perhaps, how the cancer responds to treatment.”
The biobank at St James’s currently stores samples from hundreds of patients with different types of cancer, and the majority of patients participate when asked, according to Mee. “We explain to patients what is involved, and how their samples and their data will be stored,” she says.
“We have to ask permission for their samples and for their data to be released using a biobank code rather than personal information such as a patient’s name.”
Biobank Ireland Trust supports a network of linked biobanks in Dublin, Galway and Cork, explains Mee, who is managing aspects such as shared consent forms and common access policies for researchers or pharmaceutical companies applying to use the samples.
“It’s really important that we have standard ways of operating, because this helps to ensure that samples are of high quality and comparable, and that all research using the samples is ethical and scientifically sound,” she says.
“We also want to promote infrastructure to identify and detect ‘biomarkers’ or tell-tale biological signals in samples that can help to classify the nature of a patient’s cancer, and determine which treatments might work most effectively against it.”
The trust is also working with Irish company SuprTecBox to develop a searchable online database, so that researchers can easily see what’s available. “You won’t obtain sensitive information from the search, but you will be able to see how many samples of, say, breast cancer of a specific type we have, so you can plan your study,” says Mee.
“This kind of transparency is really important if we want to support large-scale research.”