Skip main navigation

Why biobanks are important

Video of the structure of a biobank facility and text about what a biobank is

A biobanking system that collects, stores and archives specimens (e.g. viruses or other pathogens) to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests and evaluate diseases with pandemic potential can be crucial to public health responses. But what is a biobank? In this video, Gideon Nsubuga walks us through the Integrated Biorepository facility of H3Africa at Makerere University, Uganda. You will find out that biobanking is a lot more than a freezer farm.

Just like how a bank accepts (receives) and safeguards (stores) money owned by other individuals and entities, and then lends (gives out/shares) this money in order to conduct economic activities or simply to cover operating expenses (value addition), biobanks receive and store biological samples and health information. This is done in an ethically and legally regulated manner, and biobanks share these samples with researchers who can conduct research and investigate diseases using them.

What is a biobank?

A biobank/biorepository/bioresource is a collection of biological samples and health information. The purpose of a biobank is to process, organise, and maintain various types of biospecimens that are shared for utilisation in both clinical and research-based services (Figure 1).

A set of 7 colourful frames with words inside indicate the biobanking process in order: patient (ethics), sampling, collection, processing, storage, shipping, and analysis. Arrows on the top indicate that from patient to storage are biobank-related processes, and from shipping to analysis are research-related processes. An arrow on the bottom indicates the opposite direction from analysis to storage associated with the return of samples/data to the biobank

Click here to enlarge the image

Figure 1 – Biobanking process

Different biobanks collect different types of samples and information. The types of information and samples collected depend on the specific purpose of the biobank. For example, some biobanks are specific to a particular disease, such as cancer. Other biobanks are population-based and contain samples and information from people in a specific population or region. The biobanks have become a crucial resource for medical research since the late 1990s as they support various sectors of research, such as the field of personalised medicine and genomics. In fact, TIME magazine listed biobanks as being among the ten big ideas changing the world. Biobanks allow researchers to access biospecimens and data that represents a large number of people, and this can subsequently be used by multiple researchers for cross-purpose research studies.

Biospecimens

Biospecimen types that are available include organ tissue, blood, saliva, urine, skin cells, and other tissues or fluids taken from the body. The samples are maintained in appropriate condition to prevent deterioration and are protected from both accidental and intentional damage. The sample is registered in a computer-based system. The physical location of the specific sample is also noted to enable the specimen to be easily located when required. Samples are de-identified to ensure donor privacy and allow researchers to analyse without bias. Room temperature storage may be used in some cases due to cost efficiency and so as to avoid issues such as freezer failure.

Ethics

Biobanks can only store and share samples if they follow the required ethical guidelines. Some ethical issues around biobanking are the ownership of samples, ownership of derived data, the right to privacy for donors, the extent of donor consent, and the extent to which information the donor can share upon the return of research results.

How does a biobank make performing research easier?

The biobank serves as a library for researchers. Therefore, the time and resources needed to recruit new participants for each research study are greatly reduced because samples and the corresponding medical information are already available in one place. By making sample collection and patient recruitment more efficient, studies can be performed more quickly and with greater quality control.

Have you ever visited a biobank? Let us know in the comments what you expected to see in a biobank facility.

This article is from the free online

Pathogen Genomics: A New Era in Global Health Surveillance and Strategy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now