Complex Research Calls for Sophisticated Biobanking Tools

Written by Caroline Seydel, GEN

New ideas about biobanking lead to technological upgrades in specimen collection, isolation procedures, and data management

Biobanks allow researchers to store and study human tissue for a variety of uses, including biomarker discovery, immunotherapy, and targeted treatment of diseases. To be useful, biobanks rely on the collection of samples, efficient isolation, production workflows, and sophisticated data mining tools to access the information and specimens once they’ve been collected and stored. Advances in all these areas are converging to propel biobanking into a new era.

After surgery to remove a tumor, tissue samples are frozen and saved in biobanks for research purposes. These samples usually come from primary tumors before drug treatment has begun. But molecular evolution may render them less than relevant when it comes to developing novel therapies.

Cancers contain a genetically diverse population of cells. Because of this heterogeneity, therapies may kill part of the cancer, but also provide a selection pressure, leaving behind a population enriched for resistant cells. As those cells proliferate unchecked, passing on their hardier genotype, a “new” (and potentially more dangerous) cancer arises. To develop drugs against these refractory cancers, researchers need to ascertain the new, drug-resistant molecular profile, which is often different from the one derived from the original tumor sample in the biobank.

“When we’re trying to match up specific molecular changes and mutations to select patients for a specific treatment to block that particular mutation, we may be way off if we’re using banked tissue,” says Gerald Batist, MD, CM, director of the McGill Centre for Translational Research in Cancer at McGill University in Montreal.

To trace these molecular changes, it’s necessary to sample the tumor at different stages of treatment. Batist has helped launch a large, multi-institution program to collect serial biopsies from metastatic cancers after they’ve undergone one or two different therapies. “We call this next-generation biobanking,” explains Batist, “because it’s biobanking of metastatic tumors in the context of specific treatments.”

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