Underuse of specimens concerns biobanks

Economic sustainability also challenges biobanks, even as outside researchers struggle to find the specimens they need

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LEXINGTON, Mass.—Recently, iSpecimen released its latest biobanking survey report, finding that a majority of global biobanks—collectors of human fluids, cells and tissue for biomedical research—are underutilizing their specimens while struggling with financial pressures that threaten their long-term viability.
Forty-two biobanks answered an iSpecimen online questionnaire about their work in March, and 67 percent of the participating biobanks cited underutilization of samples as a major or moderate biobank challenge—the most frequently cited of 13 choices. More than half (53 percent) of the participants said they collect more samples than they release to researchers.
Meanwhile, 64 percent of respondents cited economic sustainability as a major or moderate biobank challenge, the second-highest of 13 choices and the top major challenge.
Although biobanks can charge fees for distributing specimens, many are leaving revenue on the table, according to iSpecimen. Only 44 percent of respondents release specimens to external researchers from for-profit organizations (e.g., pharma and biotech companies) with whom they are not actively collaborating. Only 24 percent of respondents said specimens are released to specimen brokers or commercial biorepositories.
“These findings are important,” said iSpecimen founder and CEO Dr. Christopher Ianelli. “We already know that researchers struggle to obtain the samples they need for their important research. Our review confirms that there’s a pent-up supply of biospecimens in storage, and that biobanks want to do something about it. Broader sample sharing would address both the underutilization and specimen availability problems, as well as the challenge of economic sustainability.”
As iSpecimen notes, one National Cancer Institute study found that four out of five researchers reported limiting the scope of their work due to the difficulty of procuring high-quality specimens.
Perennial biospecimen underutilization means that biospecimens—the sample itself and the related data—age out of usefulness. The average specimen age for 42 percent of the respondents was more than five years, a period in which many important medical advances have occurred. The medical data attached to a six-year-old sample would not reflect, say, new cancer biomarkers—a data gap potentially rendering the sample obsolete.
The biobank review also explored technology, finding that biobanks have a “hodgepodge” of software, data and search capabilities that likely impede specimen utilization.
Search capabilities in biobanks are especially primitive, according to the survey, with many researchers having trouble finding specimens within their own organizations. Internal researchers can access an online inventory list of specimens at only 27 percent of the participating biobanking organizations. Seventy-three percent of the participating biobanks have no online system in place for their researchers to search their catalog for the cases and specimens they require.
More than half of respondents said their biobanks are using primitive ad-hoc systems, such as spreadsheets, to manage their specimen inventory and data. And more than half of the respondents use internal data standards to describe their collections. Only 14 percent of respondents use externally defined biorepository standards such as Minimum Information About Biobank Data Sharing or Ontology for Biobanking, which enhance data sharing.
“On the whole, the biobanking landscape is fractured, and current practices impede both biomedical research and future sustainability,” said Ianelli. “Biobanks need strategies for making their collections available and searchable, processing requests and reinvesting the revenue. The result will be advances in biomedical research and precision medicine, honoring the intentions of philanthropic donor patients.”

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