Massachusetts Biobank Offers Researchers New Possibilities
When it comes to biobanking, many people in our society likely focus on the technology itself, imagining the lab sample management systems and freezer software that is used to properly store tubes of blood, slides of tissue, and more. These tools can often seem more like something out of a futuristic movie rather than a key item in translational research. But in this wonder, an important question may not be asked: where do the samples themselves come from?
Typically, the samples stored in a biobanking facility are gathered for specific trials: patients with conditions applicable to a study are contacted and asked to provide blood, plasma, saliva, purified DNA and other materials, as well as information on their family history, lifestyle and more. This process is often effective, but can also be lengthy and expensive. Now, Partners Healthcare, a non-profit medical organization based in Massachusetts, is planning to simplify the process by creating a freezer inventory open to affiliated researchers.
Instead of targeting specific patients with specific disease, Partners is soliciting donations from patients at the hospitals it manages, regardless of age, medical condition, and other factors. Volunteers are asked to provide three vials of blood, which can be easily collected during other appointments. Currently, their freezer inventory has samples from as many as 20,000 patients, and at their present rate, they could quickly become one of the largest biobanks in the county.
While similar to other biobanking projects in the United States, the Partners program has a number of advantages: firstly, while some calls for samples can cost as much as $1,000 a patient, Partners’ efforts are far cheaper. Secondly, because the blood samples aren’t collected for a specific study and meet a wide variety of factors, they can be used for multiple studies. Thirdly, the program is available only to Partners researchers at a cost of $20 to $35 a sample, helping studies that may have difficulty getting federal funds cut cost.
The economic success of the biobank will be difficult to manage for the first several years, making the $9 million Partners plans to spend over the next three years seem risky. However, the samples it has collected have already been used in more than a dozen studies, creating a number of opportunities for societal and financial benefit for the nonprofit. Already, scientists have encouraged Partners to open the freezer inventory to other research communities, furthering the possibilities its samples could hold for medical research.