Tissue storage: "Our top biobanks are internationally leading the charge"

Interview with Prof. Peter Schirmacher, Managing Director, Insitute of Pathology, Heidelberg University Hospital

Only projects with a solid foundation are successful in the long run. This is also true for science. Biobanks are the most important component of this foundation when it comes to fundamental biomedical research: Only high quality tissue samples that are stored there make conclusive research possible - for example in search of the causes of tumorigenesis.


Photo: Object slides; ©panthermedia.net/PAN XUNBIN

"Collection alone is nothing and project realization is everything": Appropriate documentation, organization are storage are important qualities of a research-focused biobank; ©panthermedia.net/PAN XUNBIN

In the interview with MEDICA.de, Prof. Peter Schirmacher talks about the technical status quo of sample storage, the situation in Germany and other research-focused countries and what significance the promotion of biobanks has for research.

Prof. Schirmacher, in general terms, what is biobanking?

Peter Schirmacher: Scientific biobanking is the quality assured collection, preparation, assessment, processing and specific distribution of generally human biological samples for use in research. We differentiate between tissue biobanking and liquid biobanking. Due to their different structure and requirements, it is important to differentiate clinical biobanking, meaning samples collected from patients, and population-based biobanking, meaning samples collected from typically healthy test subjects within the scope of epidemiology studies.

What is today’s state-of-the-art when it comes to storing tissue samples, their utilization and the organization of inventory?

Schirmacher: Modern research biobanks are large, specialized facilities at research-focused locations with highly qualified staff. Those are physicians to evaluate the samples, technical assistants, documentarians, IT specialists, quality and project managers, economists and bioinformaticians. More than 20 associates have overseen more than 2,000 research projects at the Central Biomaterial Bank Heidelberg, BMBH. Aside from the appropriate cooling and storage technology, you need a wide technology platform that enables the efficient validation and processing of samples as well as the production of derivatives such as extracts or tissue microarrays.

The trend in storage technology clearly moves towards robotic or automated systems, which require big investments. Biosamples are precious commodities and we need to ensure their optimal use in research. This includes standardized project and quality management, secured ethical and legal parameters including a data protection concept, a sophisticated IT platform, business management, continuing education options and even specific public relations and communications.
Photo: Tissue under microscope

Tissue samples are the most important "ressource" in biomedical research. They allow the search of the causes of tumorigenesis for example; © panthermedia.net/Norbert Dr. Lange

What are the trends? What developments or changes are in the works in this area?

Schirmacher: Leading biobanks in Germany have successfully risen to the enormous challenges over the past few years and have done exemplary work. Now it is important to secure and further develop what has been achieved through comprehensive sustainability concepts. Policy makers and research sponsors are aware of these concepts and we hope for their implementation. To do this, specific business concepts need to be developed. The foundation for this is good site-specific biobanking, which is why we need to implement corresponding biobanks at all research-focused locations, which is still a long way away. National and even international networking and harmonization are essential for many questions and projects. We are working on this in many research associations. The crumbling federal walls in Germany are going to help us with this.

What is required to accomplish this?

Schirmacher: Policy makers, research sponsors, publishers of science magazines and the industry all need to understand that a scientific project is doomed without high quality and expert-validated samples. Studies show that even in the top science magazines about half of all projects that are based on tissue samples are flawed in this regard and therefore worthless. Conservative estimates quantify the annual economic loss in the industry at approximately 20 billion US dollars due to preclinical studies with unsuitable sample collections. This is why these mandated requirements need to be included in the guidelines for research promotion, assessments and publications.

In your opinion, what are important features of a well-organized biobank?

Schirmacher: Aside from the already mentioned setup, a good biobank should receive external validation, accreditation or certification and operate a standardized documentation system that renders its activities transparent. The basic principle of good biobanking should be to facilitate research. To put it in a slightly exaggerated way: Collection alone is nothing and project realization is everything. This is why a biobank should feature an interdisciplinary setup, integrate all participants and thus ensure crucial clinical data integration.

How can biobanking provide high quality samples for research and what does it contribute to research?

Schirmacher: Without exaggeration, biobanks are the most important framework of modern biomedical research. There is a reason why a few short years ago, Time Magazine ranked them among the ten major innovative ideas that are changing the world. This is comparable to the “garbage in, garbage out“ principle in the IT field: When the quality of the sample is flawed and was not validated by experts specifically for the project, no high-end technology and no expenditure is able to save the study afterwards. Instead, you just lost a lot of time and money, published nonsense, pursued the wrong questions and perhaps wasted many years before you notice where you made a mistake. Of the more than 10,000 published biomarkers, so far less than 100 have made it all the way to the patient. One essential reason for this is a sample collection that is too small, unsuitable, inferior or not validated, but from which data was collected.
Photo: Glasses slides with tissue sections

The quality of samples in a research project needs to be validated by experts. Projects that are based on unsuitable samples merely are a waste of time and money. Their outcomes are useless for the industry, doctors and patients; ©panthermedia.net/ luchschen

The Society for Pathology advocates the development and promotion of biobanks in Germany. How are we actually doing compared to other research-focused countries?

Schirmacher: Our top biobanks, especially as it pertains to their structure, are internationally leading the charge, are indeed setting the pace and are surprisingly even ahead of American and British facilities in terms of structure and performance. We are lacking a wide base at the top however: Three or four leading facilities are not enough, and they also need to be geared towards sustainability in the long run. A research facility can only permanently survive with a corresponding biobank structure.

The reason for this is our federal structure and the lack of setup in universities and their hospitals. That is why we also lag behind in terms of networking, harmonization of standards and central programs. The BMBF, the German Centers for Health Research and the best cancer centers are moving in the right direction at this point, but lots still needs to happen in terms of expansion, consistency and the respective direction taken by research sponsors. Even the last person needs to understand that biobanking, locally and nationally, is one of the key factors for staying competitive in biomedical research and the industry.

What countries can Germany learn from in this case? How exactly do things need to be promoted to improve the situation?

Schirmacher: We can learn how to build biobanking networks from more centralized countries like France, or smaller cooperative countries such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. We can learn the setup of more cost-intensive robotic systems from pragmatic countries like the U.S., which is better off in terms of research funding.

Apart from that, other countries take a look at our best biobanks to see how you can manage a large number of projects with comparatively little money in efficient structures. We need more of these biobanks - in every location. These biobanks need to be standardized, and biobanking needs to become an obligatory component in research promotion and assessment. Finally, networking and harmonization of biobanks need to be sufficiently supported. Far too often, policy makers, national sponsoring facilities and decision makers are still playing pick-up sticks at the locations: If you move, you lose! However, I am an optimist and I see signs of change. The programs at the BMBF for example are moving in the right direction. We need to sustainably promote biobanking as the key factor for research in Germany.
Foto: Timo Roth; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Timo Roth and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.