TGen tapped for ‘biobank’

Luxembourg selects TGen to create biobank for storage of blood and tissue samples for scientists

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PHOENIX—A partnership between Luxembourg and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is shifting into high gear with the arrival of a new CEO and the construction of a new building for the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL).

Luxembourg has tapped Phoenix-based TGen to create a "biobank" that will store blood and tissue samples for scientists to access as they research diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease. The partnership marks TGen's first major project overseas, and TGen executives are optimistic that the pact can generate more jobs in Arizona and potentially start up businesses in the state as well.

According to Tess Burleson, TGen's chief operating officer, the company will provide "expertise in developing the infrastructure and collaborative network to encourage transatlantic research."

The IBBL is seen as an international collection, repository, analysis and distribution point for blood, serum, saliva, tumors and other biospecimen samples to assist investigators worldwide in scientific research.

"I think it's fantastic," adds Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen's president and research director.  "This project helps Luxembourg with their long-term goals, while providing Arizona with significant investments. At the same time, it holds the promise of furthering scientific investigations on a global basis. We've already made a lot of progress."

Announced more than a year ago, the International Biobank of Luxembourg is beginning to take shape with a new building under construction there and the hiring of Dr. Robert Hewitt as chief executive officer.

Over the next several months, Hewitt will hire a staff of nearly 70. In April, ground was broken for the IBBL's new building, on the campus of Luxembourg's Public Research Centre for Health. The new facility is set for completion in October.

"This is a really exciting and promising partnership. Thanks to generous government funding, careful planning and expert guidance from partners at TGen, we have all the right ingredients to develop a world-class biobank, biorefinery and advanced technology center in Luxembourg," Hewitt says. "This unique infrastructure will support collaborative research at the forefront of developments in personalized medicine."
Hewitt adds that success TGen has experienced since its launch in 2002 made it an attractive partner for IBBL.

"It has been very appealing for IBBL to develop a trans-Atlantic collaboration with such a renowned partner as TGen," he says. "In addition, the partnership between TGen and IBBL has received strong support and encouragement from Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen's scientific director, who originally envisaged and implemented the plan for his own institute."

TGen developed computer software that will track tissue samples and the genetic information that those samples yield. The data will be made available to scientists worldwide who are researching diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

The Luxembourg project already has expanded in scope since it was announced last year. For example, while initial plans focused on collecting tissues for cancer research, the IBBL is studying an international project involving the collection of biospecimens across Europe and Africa in an investigation of cardiovascular disease.

Burleson points out that the information technology needed to process tissue samples has resulted in new computer software developed jointly by TGen and Luxembourg investigators at the Institute Henri Tudor that could have commercial uses. Burleson says the partner marketing new discoveries that stem from the agreement will depend on exactly who licenses the technology.

"Both TGen and Luxembourg will promote any intellectual property to interested parties," Burleson notes.

Luxembourg's bioscience project includes two other major parts. A project for lung-cancer research is headed by the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, which includes scientists from TGen, Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle. The third part of the project, headed by the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, seeks to develop protein-based tests that can detect the early stages of disease.

Dr. Jean-Claude Schmit, who chairs the International Biobank's seven-member governing board, said in a statement that the project will open Luxembourg to international research and provide research partners such as TGen access to the European market.

The entire project will last five years, but TGen officials could not immediately say how much of the $190 million will be captured by Arizona researchers.

"We are under confidentiality regarding this matter, but we can say that this is one of TGen's largest contracts to date and portions of it span over five years," Burleson notes.
TGen officials will likely see tangible results of the partnership much sooner than that, making it easy to gauge success, he adds.

"We have milestones and timelines that the project is evaluated against, but ultimately, in this field of work, success occurs when we impact the lives of patients through our work," notes Burleson.

According to Hewitt, there will be a number of ways to gauge success of the TGen-IBBL pairing.

"The collaboration with TGen will continue to develop long after IBBL's startup phase; IBBL will generate 'spin off' projects and companies in the same way as TGen; and IBBL will continue to exist long-term as key infrastructure supporting biomedical research in Luxembourg and beyond," he says.

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