Biobanks Go Global

06 September 2016

Medical research increasingly relies on collections of donated human tissue, such as DNA samples, blood samples and solid organs and tissues. These collections of donated samples – referred to as biobanks, biorepositories or tissue banks – can be used in basic science experiments, population studies, or towards the refinement and personalisation of medical and surgical techniques. The practice of collecting and systematically organising biological samples is not new. Famous historical collections were put together by Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) in Sweden, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–88) in France, and Joseph Banks (1743–1820) in England. In recent years, however, advances in experimental techniques (such as whole genome sequencing) and information technologies (such as “big data” storage and analytics) have massively increased the promise of biomedical research using collections of human biological samples. In order for the promise of biobanks to be fulfilled, large numbers of samples need to be collected, stored and analysed. Until recently, most biobanks were located within individual universities, research institutes or health facilities, and often tied to specific research projects. Increasingly, however, biobanks have become “networked” in an effort to become more sustainable and to increase their utility. Most often, these networks of biobanks draw together samples from within a country to create a single biobank that may be accessible to researchers based in different institutions and with different research interests. But even large domestic biobanks or biobank networks like these may still lack the statistical power to answer important research questions. For example, research into the genetics of rare or complex diseases often requires the analysis of samples that number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Maximising the full potential of biobanks is therefore difficult within the confines of a single nation.