Banking on the future of oesophageal cancer research

Research Lives: Dr Marina Zaki, manager of Barrett’s Oesophagus BioBank at St James’s Hospital, Dublin

You manage a biobank for Barrett’s oesophagus, what does that mean?

The oesophagus is the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach, and Barrett’s oesophagus is where the cells in that tube show signs that they may develop into cancer cells in the future.

Patients who have Barrett’s come in for checks and endoscopies, where the doctor takes a small sample or biopsy of those cells to examine them. The idea of a biobank is to store tissue from biopsies and blood samples and other useful clinical data – all with the patient’s consent – so they can be used for future research.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?


I see which patients with Barrett’s might be suitable for research, then when one comes in I make sure with the nurses and doctors that it is okay to talk to the patient. If the patient is happy to consent, then I do the admin and I liaise with the nurses and doctors to get the patient samples after the patient has had their endoscopy and blood tests, and I store the samples in the biobank.

We have minus-80-degree freezers for this, and I have to be careful to avoid freezer burn when putting samples in or taking them out! I also work with researchers who could be interested in using the samples for their approved projects.

Do you contact the patients again if their samples are being used?

No, that is one of the great things about biobanking – because the patients have consented, we don’t need to contact them again, they don’t need to think about it.

The patients are often just very happy to be able to give something back for research, but it is all voluntary and if a patient does not want to consent that’s okay too. We also try to tailor it to make the patient feel comfortable, so, for example, if the patient has a fear of needles then we wouldn’t ask for a blood sample. It’s very patient-focused, which I like.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

My dad is a medical doctor. He was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in the midlands, and he sparked my interest in pharmacology, which I studied at University College Dublin. Then I went to London to study translational medicine, which looks at lab findings that can be applied in the clinic. I loved that "wet lab" work, looking at biochemical pathways.

After that I came back to Ireland and I did a PhD with the Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN). I went around Ireland and interviewed people who were designing and running clinical trials.

What I enjoyed about that was seeing behind the scenes in clinical trials and how they work. Now, with this job at the biobank, I get to understand the patient perspective more, to find out what they want to know about the research before they make a decision about consenting for their samples to be used.

What’s the best part of your job?

Definitely the chats with the patients. Communication – and by that I mean listening to the patient as well as offering them answers – is such an important part of clinical research.

And how to you take a break in your spare time?

I was born in Ireland and I’m originally Egyptian, and the Coptic Orthodox Church is a big part of my community here. I’m a trustee for the church’s charity, and in my spare time I help out on the regulation side of things, making sure everything is in order from a governance perspective. I love being involved.

For more details about the biobank, contact:

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation