A Sample Network


MEDICAL RESEARCH:An innovative Irish scheme has created a link biobank that provides a resource for researchers nationwide to gain access to a bank of valuable specimens

SUPPOSE THERE was a simple idea that had the potential to hack years off drug discovery timelines, double the speed of PhD research, render clinical trials more efficient and encourage scientists, doctors and industry to work together towards more personalised treatments for patients.

These are the potential benefits touted for networked biobanking, a multi-centre system of linking samples from patients with robust clinical data and – just as importantly – the researchers who need to use them.

“It’s something this country badly needs,” says Eoin Gaffney, director of Biobank Ireland Trust and a consultant pathologist at St James’s Hospital.

Working in pathology, where tissue and blood samples are collected, stored and analysed for characteristics of disease, Gaffney saw the need for a better way of doing things rather than individual doctors or institutions maintaining isolated banks of human material.

The old way meant that biologically valuable samples were being stashed away in freezers, drawers and vials while at the same time researchers and industry were crying out for human tissue samples on which to carry out the latest molecular techniques. “There are banks of specimens all over the hospitals and universities that are not being used,” says Gaffney. “And there’s no point in that.”

In 2003, Gaffney and business partner Ciaran Flanagan set up the Biobank Ireland Trust with the aim of bridging that gap. If they could link networks of high-quality biobanks across hospitals in Ireland, researchers would know what was there and could apply to use samples for approved projects.

“It’s not rocket science – it’s just about getting people to work together,” says Gaffney,who has spent years planning, fundraising, talking to stakeholders and engaging with growing biobank networks in Spain and other countries to see how best to proceed. Then last year, the All-Ireland Cancer Biobank and Informatics Network passed a tipping point when Blathnaid Mee came on board.

Funded by an award from Vodafone Foundation Ireland, which grants recipients €40,000 for a year to support their chosen cause, Mee has started to collect breast and colon cancer biopsy samples from consenting patients in St James’s and to store them appropriately linked with clinical data.

For the approach to work, the tissue has to be in good condition: “In a lot of biobanks in the world the quality is useless, which is not good for studies – garbage in, garbage out,” says Gaffney, who stresses that their tissue samples are quality assessed before being entered. This seems like common sense, but surprisingly, this networked honest-broker system is new to Ireland. “This is really innovative,” says Gaffney. “We have never had this kind of set-up in Ireland before. The samples are minded by neutrals – they are not minded by scientists.”

So far the biobank network has been working with other large cancer centres around the country, and Gaffney is confident that eventually nine key hospitals will be linked, meaning researchers can access samples when they need them, rather than having to wait for patients to present.

But while patients are generally altruistic about letting their tissue samples and anonymised clinical information enter the networked biobank, this has to be done properly. What if new technologies appear down the line – can donated samples still be used?

This boils down to the ethical and scientific merits of each request, which will be weighed up by a committee, explains Gaffney, who believes the first samples will be handed to researchers in about 18 months.

“There has to be a tracking mechanism where the patient consents for sample distribution and return,” he says. “Consent is very important, and it’s on the understanding that it [a patient’s sample] will be used for a project that has been ethically and scientifically approved. Then if there is tissue left over it will be used for a similar project if the ethics committee approves it.”

Gaffney believes the biopharma industry also has to be in on the network, but the offer of samples to industry comes with a stipulation: only for projects carried out in collaboration with academics. “And anything they use tissue for we want to see the results from it, including the negative results too,” he adds.

Nor is there the whiff of money changing hands. “We would never sell any samples to anyone,” says Gaffney.

While the initiative is fast gaining ground, Gaffney knows there is a way to go yet. “I won’t be happy until this network is up and running and people are giving samples that are going to improve patient care and clinical trials, and patients have reason to hope that new drugs are to be developed, and they can contribute to that,” he says.

“But once you have an infrastructure that’s the link.”