Central body to oversee 'biobanks' storing human tissue focus of report


THE CREATION of a single Government-funded body to oversee the retention of human tissue samples has moved a step closer with the preparation of a report by an expert group on health research.

The group is finalising its findings for the Department of Health and Children and a national co-ordinating body could be up and running before the end of the year.

The body would regulate the activities and procedures carried out by “biobanks”, collections of human biological material such as blood, cells from organs and tumour cells. These tissues represent an extremely valuable resource used by researchers to study diseases.

Establishment of a national biobank co-ordinating body would in turn make it easier for Ireland to link to similar bodies being set up in countries across Europe. The goal is to harmonise the way materials are collected, catalogued, stored and shared between banks and in turn accessed by international researchers.

“We are looking at a national structure for biobanks in order to conduct clinical research,” said Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan, chief bioethics officer in the Department of Health and Children and a member of the health research group, chaired by Enda Connolly, which put together recommendations in the report.

The group was set up under the Health Research Action Plan by the previous government to co-ordinate the various biobanks that started to form six to eight years ago. The Health Research Board issued recommendations on an all-Ireland biobank as long ago as 2004. Many biobanks here are associated with individual universities or consortiums of universities.

The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has a bank, and tissue samples are collected and used for research by the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium set up in 2004 involving Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. There are several other biobanks in existence.

The expert group “should be delivering soon”, Dr O’Sullivan said. Details of its recommendations and the structures to be established were not available but she said it would be modelled on the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI), an EU-funded body formed under the European Research Infrastructure Consortium. This body has 53 members in 30 countries and is based in Graz, Austria.

The workings of the BBMRI came under discussion last week in Strasbourg during an international conference on biobanking organised by the Council Of Europe. It involved experts in the application and use of biobanked tissue samples and policymakers from departments of health from around Europe and from the council’s own committee on bioethics.

The council prepared its own recommendations on biobanking in 2006, believing these should be reviewed after five years. The meeting was an effort to engage the assembled experts in discussions that could help the council update its recommendations, the meeting’s organisers said.

Biobanking and the research that it fosters held great promise for the future but, to be successful, it required the protections afforded by the Human Rights Commission, said Philippe Boillat, director general of the council’s human rights and rule of law directorate. While success required willing participation, “the development of public trust is another important goal.

” Director of the European Commission’s European Research Area Dr Octavi Quintana Trias said biobanks “hold great promise for society”.