All around the world, human samples are stored in laboratories, hospitals, and specialized facilities. These collections vary significantly in size—from single labs housing specimens for individual projects, to large, university-based biobanks. In the United States alone, there are thousands of such facilities. “Anybody that’s systemically collecting samples is considered a biobank,” said Andrew Brooks, Ph.D., COO at RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a Rutgers University-based biorepository. “There are biobanks all over the place, and [there is] a huge, growing community.”
Despite the growth in biorepositories, technical and operational hurdles still stand in the way of investigators procuring the right samples for their research. In a 2011 National Cancer Institute (NCI) survey of 727 cancer researchers, 47 percent reported having difficulty obtaining quality biospecimens. And as the field of precision medicine continues to accelerate, the demand for high-quality samples will likely continue to grow.
“Many investigators are constantly looking for access to biosamples,” said Stephen Thibodeau, Ph.D., a co-director of the biorepositories program at the Mayo Clinic. “Because it’s just really hard to get good samples that are well annotated and meet the specific criteria that you want to have large enough numbers.”
Big repositories, such as those established by RUCDR Infinite Biologics and the Mayo Clinic, are trying to respond to these demands by providing access to samples, as well as the facilities to process, store and manage them. Often, these facilities also provide access to researchers outside of their respective institutions.
“Right now, there are lots of large programs that exist academically and commercially that are doing prospective collections, like us [at RUCDR],” Dr. Brooks said. “People are generating biological assets for future use to help decrease or to make the hurdle a bit lower to get access to samples.”
While many biorepostitories and commercial specimen-researcher matchmakers are working to improve access to biospecimens, uniform and consistent clinical annotation remains a significant hurdle for researchers looking to gather multiple specimens from multiple sources for their work.
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