Biobank networks – a researcher’s dream

Interview with Prof. Roland Jahns, MD, FESC, Specialist in Internal Medicine/Cardiology Head of the Interdisciplinary Bank of Biomaterials and Data Wuerzburg (ibdw), University Hospital of Wuerzburg, Germany


You have planned a research project, but you still lack the proper tissue samples. Wouldn’t it be helpful, if you could now simply look inside your computer and realize the needed material is still available at a biobank in Berlin or Vienna? Just quickly file an application and get your desired sample. The fact that things are unfortunately still not quite this simple is something Professor Roland Jahns is going to illustrate at the MEDICA EDUCATION CONFERENCE on Thursday (17 November). We asked him about biobanks prior to the event.

Image: Prof. Jahns in front of a standee; Copyright: beta-web/Roth

The topic of the lecture by Prof. Jahns during the MEDICA EDUCATION CONFERENCE is "Clinical biobanking as a step towards European and global networking"; © Brade

Professor Jahns, what different types of biobanks are there currently?

Roland Jahns: There are many different types of biobanks out there. The differences start with different technical equipment and end with the structure of biobanks. Quality also plays a role. You have African biobanks that collect mammoth bones or pure biological biobanks with microorganisms. There are also biobanks with an academic focus, so-called “disease-focused biobanks“. They will be the primary emphasis of the MEDICA EDUCATION CONFERENCE.

Who has access to the disease-focused biobanks?

Jahns: That depends on the biobank’s set-up. Many researchers want to access samples that were collected based on so-called broad consent. In this case, donors are asked for blood or tissue samples but you are not able to tell them at the time of the sample provision what it will be used for later. The research purpose remains open – the storage period for the sample is unlimited. These are materials that scientists all over the world can access if a regular application is on hand. All modern broadly-based biobanks have access guidelines. These are defined by panels that also decide on the applications for biomaterials. For the most part, this also requires the vote of an ethics committee, stating that there are no objections to the submitted research project. Not until then will there be a check on whether the materials are actually available in the required quality and quantity.

Image: Frozen mini-tube is taken from cryogenic; Copyright: / helenap2014

Collecting samples appears easy. But what happens when it comes to the last sample of a very rare lung cancer? Answers must be found; ©

Sooner or later the sample materials are depleted. Are biobanks continuously restocked?

Jahns: Needless to say, the sustainability and longevity of biobanks is a critical issue. Fluid samples are less problematic. Generally, you draw blood for two regular blood collection tubes and split them into twelve to 20 small aliquots that are filled into microtubes. You can already conduct a multitude of studies with the quantity in just one microtube. Having said that, if you handed out 19 aliquots, you eventually need to decide how valuable the last remaining sample is to you. This question comes up particularly for certain types of tissue. For example, if you only have one 9x9 millimeter cube of tissue from a rare type of lung cancer, who decides who receives the last slice of tissue? Obviously, there are statutes, regulations, and quality standards today that need to be observed. And within these access guidelines, there have to be committees that answer these types of questions. Do we hand out the last sample or not? For instance, we are funded by the faculty here in Würzburg. If a researcher from London asked for a sample of which there is only one left, the researchers from Würzburg have the power to veto if they need the sample themselves. The keyword here is prioritization. So far, we didn’t need this type of mechanism but it is available in theory.

Is your network broad enough to where you know the samples that are available at each biobank – and beyond national borders?

Jahns: That’s the goal we would like to achieve. We are presently networking at a national level. Our objective is to connect approximately ten biobanks that receive funds from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research to where everyone gains insights into every biobank. For example, you get a chart and are able to see the various types of cancers and how many samples of these types are available. However, you cannot see whether this is a very rare molecular structure of a phenotype for instance. To do this, researchers need to directly request the desired special markers if they want to receive lung cancer tissue from a biobank for example. Then it’s up to the biobank to reply to this request. After all, a certain amount of autonomy is meant to be maintained throughout Europe. In addition, many researchers want to know what type of therapy was administered for this cancer or whether the therapy was successful or not. Generally, this is data that is typically stored in a clinical data warehouse based on today’s understanding. Here you have an actual link to the biomaterial but the biobanks themselves are urged to sparingly collect data. That is to say, all clinical data that is stored in a clinical information system should not be duplicated.

Where would you like to be with your project five years from now?

Jahns: We want to establish links to data from clinical history. As a scientist, you usually have a research idea for a new therapeutic approach for example. Since you want to pursue it, you need a patient population. Of course, you also want to know if biomaterial is available in biobanks for this purpose. Unfortunately, today this is only possible to a limited extent. Oftentimes, “broad consent” is lacking, where patients release their material for an indefinite period of time and unspecified future uses. This approach has only been accepted for the past three years. Based on this, we might expect closer networking over the next five years and subsequently also an easier national and Europe-wide sample exchange.

What do you expect from MEDICA 2016?

Jahns: We hope to make new connections with manufacturers of machines such as automated cryogenic store systems or pipetting robots for example. I think there is still lots of room for improvement in this area. Needless to say, we also gladly offer our help to scientists, institutions or hospital facilities and answer questions on what to consider when you set-up a biobank. There are usually very interesting conversations after the lectures. This was the case last year and I hope this will also be the case this year. 


Clinical biobanking as a step towards European and global networking

Thursday 17 November 2016, 9.00-10.30 Uhr, CCD South, Room 17


Photo: Simone Ernst; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Simone Ernst and translated by Elena O'Meara.