Evidence-based research with biobanks

The third National Biobank Symposium

Evidence-based research with biobanks

16 December 2014. According to Allison Hubel from the University of Minnesota, USA, keeping samples at low temperatures, providing good training for employees and monitoring processes are key to ensuring the high-quality storage of biomaterials and creating valuable, long-term resources for medical research. Quality management took centre stage on the second day of the third National Biobank Symposium, held in Berlin on 3 and 4 December 2014 and attended by 290 participants. Hubel also underlined that blood and tissue samples are composed of a mixture of liquid and solid matter that have different freezing requirements, something which has to be taken into account during storage.

An exhibitor’s stand at the third National Biobank Symposium in 2014

A further presentation by an international guest speaker looked at the evaluation of pre-analytical variables in the collection and storage of blood samples for research purposes. Dr Mimi Roy (iON Bioservices, Sunnyvale, USA) presented the results of scientific studies designed to support evidence-based quality management in biobank research. Roy explained that around five to 10 per cent of the proteins in a cell deteriorate during storage, whereas the remaining proteins remain stable. To date, around 20 proteins have been identified as potential biomarkers for degradation as a result of freezing and thawing. At temperatures of -80 °C, this process can be observed after six months. When material is stored at -20 °C, the degree of change is greater.

Interoperability is first and foremost in the user domain

In an interview ahead of the symposium, Dr Sara Nussbeck (University Hospital of Göttingen) called for the application of existing biobanking standards to enable better IT support for complex processes. Dr Nussbeck and Sebastian C. Semler (TMF) jointly moderated a presentation on this topic. During the session, Professor Günter Haroske (University Hospital of Dresden) explained that semantic interoperability in particular presents a significant challenge. He presented the specimen container model for structured pathology findings and stressed that interoperability is more of a task for the user than an IT issue. Daniela Skrowny (University Hospital of Göttingen), who carried out an analysis of current software products within the scope of TMF’s IT Review, recommended that TMF provide information on which specialist software products are best suited to which types of biobanks. One of the aims of this study was to revise the IT requirements defined in 2007 and develop a generic list, outlining the minimum IT infrastructure requirements for biobanks plus additional information.

“As much as necessary, as little as possible“

Panel discussion on the role of ethics commissions in research with biobanks

For Professor Daniel Stech (Hanover Medical School), the role of ethics committees in medical research based on biobanks is to do “as much as necessary, but as little as possible.” He argued in favour of broad consent while stressing the importance of transparency when dealing with biomaterials. Research projects that present a certain level of risk and require an external opinion can be identified using an access committee from within the biobank’s own team, he continued. This would enable independent ethics committees to concentrate on high-risk areas, preserving resources and simplifying research. Similarly, Professor Jochen Taupitz (University of Heidelberg and Mannheim) called for the involvement of ethics councils in exceptional circumstances only. He defined exceptional cases as those involving data that could lead to the identification of individuals and projects that are ethically or legally controversial. Moreover, he stated that input from ethics experts should be sought if donors are to be contacted again at a later date or if the original intended use for the specimens or data has changed. Dr Tobias Herbst (Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Bremen) was of a different opinion, advocating that ethics committees play a key role in all biobank-based research.

ISBER: a global forum for biomaterials research

The International Society for Biological and Environmental Biorepositories (ISBER) aims to share ideas and innovations within the biobank community, standardise the storage of biomaterials, safeguard the quality of specimens and support efficient biobanking processes. Dr Fay Betsou (Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg, IBBL) outlined the activities and initiatives of the organisation in her evening lecture at the symposium. ISBER is a global scientific forum that supports research using biomaterials around the world. In 2014, the registered charity had over 1000 members in 37 countries.

The ISBER Education and Training Committee and the ISBER Biospecimen Science Working Group have developed best practices, tools and educational programmes for researchers. These include a self-assessment tool that enables biobank operators to check compliance with ISBER’s best practices. The EQA (Pre-analytical External Quality Assurance) survey tool enables biobanks to test quality assurance in the pre-analytical phase. The Sample PREanalytical Code (SPREC) has been successfully applied in several countries. This tool documents the in-vitro pre-analytical history of biomaterials using standardised methodologies. In addition, ISBER has developed a programme that evaluates the efficiency and performance of biomaterial processes, and tests the precision of quality control methods (proficiency testing).

A single point of contact in Europe

The German Biobank Node (GBN) project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and headed by Professor Michael Hummel (Charité University Hospital, Berlin), was also presented at the symposium. GBN serves as a central point of contact for the European biobank infrastructure BBMRI-ERIC and represents German interests at European level – as Dr Cornelia Rufenach (Charité) explained.

Exhibition of posters on biobanking

Dr Isabell Hahn (Health Research at the German Aerospace Center) explained that a future task for BBMRI-ERIC will be to enable researchers to search for and locate biological specimens across Europe. She stressed the significant potential of biobanks if high-quality samples are used. Further elements of GBN include the development of an IT architecture, promoting quality management of specimens and strengthening public relations.

Biobanks play a key role in new scientific developments

A promising development that still has a long way to go before it can be applied in clinical practice is liquid-biopsy based diagnosis. Professor Edgar Dahl (University Hospital of Aachen) reported that today’s leading-edge technologies open new doors and push the boundaries of analytical methods. Currently, researchers are working on analysing free-circulating cancer DNA in the blood. Digital measurement equipment enables this to be performed with a very small sample, explained Dahl. Potential applications are the early detection and diagnosis of tumours, monitoring of progress, timely recognition of resistance to targeted treatments and stratification of patients. However, there are indications that not all types of cancer can be detected in their early stages. Biobanks can play an important role in furthering the role of liquid biopsies, reported Dahl.

Hanover and Würzburg biobanks win award for best poster

The awards for the best posters in the categories infrastructure, quality management, IT support and interoperability were presented to teams from Hanover Unified Biobank (HUB) and Würzburg’s integrated database for biomaterial (ibdw). Dr Norman Klopp, Inga Bernemann and Dr Markus Kerstig from HUB and Dr Michael Neumann from ibdw received special commendation.

 Presentation of the awards for best poster

Upcoming events

The fourth National Biobank Symposium will be held in Berlin on 9 and 10 December 2015. In 2016, the event will be jointly hosted with ISBER as an international conference in Berlin.