“Hello and welcome to our biobank! How can I help you today?”

“I’d like 20 aliquots of blood from Caucasian males aged 30-40 years old who were exposed to asbestos.”

“Coming right up! Would you like a list of blood types with that?”

Human biobanks are like libraries but instead of humanity’s collection of literature, they contain samples from humanity itself. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, you can now go online and order any number of biospecimens including blood, plasma, saliva, marrow, urine, amniotic fluid, purified DNA, stem cells and cerebrospinal fluid.  Each sample is maintained and screened for common and particular features and contaminants. All samples are acquired after informed consent has been obtained from donors according to the Declaration of Helsinki (the cornerstone document on human research ethics).

What are biobanks used for?

Researchers use biobank catalogs to acquire samples with particular characteristics, such as specific genetic traits, age, gender, health history, ethnicity and blood type to name a few. This:

  1. reduces the number of animals needed to screen potential treatments;
  2. allows researchers access a wide variety of sample types with ease;
  3. ensures samples obtained by researchers are of a high quality and are devoid of any contaminants;
  4. reduces the cost of and time spent conducting research.

Rather than scouring the internet for biobanks and trying to check each one for the unique sample type you need, you can use centralized databases such as Specimen Central to search through many biobanks at once (including human, plant and animals biobanks). You can even limit your search to samples from patients with particular neurological diseases, cancers or genetic mutations.

How does it work?

Let’s take a made up example to show how a particular sample may go from patient to biobank to researcher.

Ms. X is a 44 year old female from the USA with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Her doctor asks her if she is open to donating some blood to a biobank for research on ALS. She agrees. After the informed consent process is complete, a sample of blood is drawn. Her sample along with some de-identified details is sent to a local biobank. They process the sample ensuring it is contaminant-free and correctly cataloged and stored. Biobank’s have very stringent procedures to ensure the efficacy and integrity of every sample. You can explore the workflow of a biobank using ThermoFisher’s virtual tour.

The details of the sample are made available online via the biobank’s website. An ALS researcher is looking for DNA from Caucasian, non-Hispanic/Latino women aged 30-40 years of age at age of diagnosis, who are from the USA and whose ALS is upper limb onset. He comes across Ms. X’s sample here and places an order.

What are virtual biobanks?

A quick note on these (because they’re just too cool not to mention).

Virtual biobanks are large databases of data obtained from samples stored at biobanks. High resolution images and characteristic data can be accessed using specialized computer software and online portals. Biobanks around the world collaborate to allow researchers access to as wide a range of data as possible. This has the distinct advantage of allowing for data mining on a large scale without requiring large quantities of samples. Thus research can be conducted without even needing physical access to the samples under study!

Where is your nearest biobank? Perhaps you’ve passed by it within even realizing! Tweet us your nearest biobank at @TempoBioscience and let us know something interesting they offer!

Further reading:

Biorepositories: Building better biobanks

Biobanking Past, Present and Future: Responsibilities and Benefits  on stem cells in general.

Previously published via TempoBlog:

What Is the Difference Between Pluripotent, Multipotent, Totipotent Stem Cells and All the Rest?

How to Detect, Avoid and Deal With Contaminated Cell Cultures

Article by Olwen Reina. Contact Olwen at olwen@tempobioscience.com.
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