Biobanking — the importance of scalability and integration


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Introduction

Biobanking or the storage of biospecimens is becoming increasingly more important in the area of biomedical research. Researchers are constantly looking for ways to identify the cause of a disease as well as determine personalised treatment options for these illnesses. The availability of biospecimens is crucial in developing statistically relevant hypotheses. This is where the value of a biobank comes into its own, with its ability to serve numerous research groups potentially working on many different and disparate projects. Effectively, biobanks offer an easier route to specimen access for researchers when required.

“Biobank is an important resource where people generously donate samples that allow us to carry out research to find cures for chronic diseases,’’ said Biobank Director, Professor Nigel McMillan from the Gold Coast Biobank. “Without this we wouldn’t be able to find cures of the future”, he continued. By collecting specimens now, researchers will have access to a library of human tissue samples that will hopefully hold the key to unlocking cures and treatments to potentially life-threatening conditions in a much more efficient manner.

Biospecimen Storage

To maintain the viability of biospecimens they need to be stored at extremely low temperatures such as in liquid nitrogen (-80°C). Traditionally, this has been achieved using glorified domestic freezers. While these achieved the storage objective, they freeze specimens together into blocks that often require defrosting of multiple samples to retrieve just a single sample. This defrosting step can compromise the integrity of the other samples and as well as being extremely inefficient.

The modern alternative in biospecimen storage is the TTP Labtech arktic. This highly compact solution can be easily installed into a standard laboratory without the need for any infrastructure modifications. The high-density storage system caters for up to 100,000 samples in a unit about the same size as a refrigerator. Its modular nature enables further units to be integrated as your storage requirements dictate. The associated lab2lab sample and data automation system also enables multiple arktics to be connected across labs, floors as well as an entire facility with specimens able to be delivered swiftly to remote laboratories for further analysis and study.

The arktic also overcomes the “block frozen specimen” scenario by maintaining a dehumidified atmosphere within the storage chamber. Furthermore, researchers can specify exactly which specimens they need and these can be retrieved in a matter of minutes, neatly presented in the system’s arrayer for collection at a designated time of your choice. This also guarantees the integrity of other samples as they all remain at a constant -80°C.

Bioinformatics and Sample Management

Originally developed with funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the US to aggregate and manage biospecimen data, Openspecimen has continued to evolve and has become the world’s most trusted open source bioinformatics platform. Used at more than 65 biobanks around the globe, Australia is the second largest install base.

Openspecimen is a comprehensive biospecimen management database that eliminates the need for multiple software packages. It allows you to track specimens from collection to utilisation for prospective or longitudinal collections, multi-site clinical studies, or non-human collections. You can collect clinical and specimen data (like smoking history, pathology annotations, genetics, lab tests, etc.) and it includes a powerful reporting module. This allows you to easily filter and identify the most relevant specimens for your particular study.

While all these functionalities are excellent, the beauty of Openspecimen lies in its ability to be customised to every individual organisation’s specific requirements so that they can get the maximum benefit from it. This includes having multiple user levels across an organisation. In addition, the developers of Openspecimen are constantly updating the system based on user feedback and needs. As these evolutions are completed they are rolled out to the install base as software version updates.

Openspecimen uses a browser-based interface eliminating the need for individual user-dedicated software installs and licences. “OpenSpecimen’s flexible user interface (UI) works very well for the different biorepositories and workflows at our institution. The ability to easily configure the user interface creates streamlined ‘screens’ so technicians spend less time entering data. Processing large volumes of specimen data in bulk via the CSV file import feature is used regularly in our high-throughput labs,” said David Mulvihill, Director of Informatics for Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine.

System Integration

There are three components to a successful biobank:

  1. A collection of specimens available for research purposes
  2. A biostorage system
  3. A bioinformatics platform
     

For a truly efficient biobank, all three must work harmoniously together, and in particular the hardware and software/database need to be fully integrated to get the full benefit and to streamline the research pathway and simplify and optimise specimen availability.

The integration between the arktic and Openspecimen is complete and has been implemented by the Gold Coast Biobank, pioneers in Australian biobanking. In a first for the southern hemisphere, the purpose-built Gold Coat Biobank bridges the gap in translational clinical research.

The Gold Coast Biobank at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland (MHIQ) at Griffith University are the first to establish a fully integrated biobank using the TTP Labtech arktic and Openspecimen. Their purpose built biostorage facility was officially opened on August 12. It serves as a model for regional biobanks. Currently it houses 3000 samples from breast cancer patients and 1500 placenta cord specimens.

“With this state-of-the-art technology, we have the resources to improve the management of our existing samples and the capacity to take on new projects,” said Professor McMillan. He added, “MHIQ is committed to translating innovative health research into better outcomes and we are able to offer research collaboration for academics and clinicians whose work involves the collection of human tissue.”

Summary

The integration of the TTP Labtech arktic biostorage system with Openspecimen’s comprehensive bioinformatics platform provides a streamlined and futureproof solution to biobanking. It allows you to take control of your biospecimen library and to easily access the samples you need for your specific study. Catering for the needs of many, it can even allow researchers with a common goal to access and collaborate for faster beneficial outcomes regardless of geography.

The arktic/Openspecimen integration is also ideal for multiple research groups allowing everyone access to each other’s specimens and data providing a collaborative environment focussed on medical outcomes. While some groups may get hung up on the ability to store legacy specimens, a better mindset may be to look to the future and to gradually transition these across to the new automated system as they are accessed and to focus on increasing the chances of making medical breakthroughs resulting in better outcomes for generations to come.

For more information: http://www2.axt.com.au/biobanking2019.

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