Why Biobank? A recent article was published explaining why there are many names scientists often suggest as an alternative to the word “biobank.” In his article, Biobanks: Why All the Names, Robert Hewitt wrote that biobanks are not meeting the expectations of patients, researchers and the society as a whole1.
Reasons for Dr. Hewitt’s perception are indicated as such. Retrospectively collected biospecimens, which exist in most biobanks, may not meet the requirements of the studies of the researchers. Additionally, the consent forms patients sign for the use of their biospecimens may not cover the proposed research. Finally, a highly selective review process can delay the release of biospecimens from the biobank.
A different author, Dominic Allen, once wrote biobanks should collect biospecimens prospectively in a trusted collection of networks2 to overcome some of these limitations. Fortunately, the Cooperative Human Tissue Network’s (CHTN) founders had the foresight 31 years ago to know that prospective biospecimen procurement would be an invaluable service to the research community and could meet their expectations.
The CHTN is a U.S. National Cancer Institute-sponsored program. It comprises six academic institutions that cooperatively participate in collecting and distributing human biospecimens for the purposes of facilitating and encouraging:
• Basic science
• Developmental discovery research
• Translational cancer research studies
• Molecular biology, immunology and genetic research.
The CHTN prospectively collects and distributes biospecimens including malignant, benign and normal tissues. The specimens are collected and processed according to protocols stipulated by each researcher, which can include provision of fresh, frozen and/or fixed samples. Due to the prospective procurement model, on average, 21% of CHTN biospecimens distributed are fresh. By communications through a shared database, CHTN is able to meet the biospecimen needs of academic, government and commercial researchers.
The efficacy of this approach is illustrated by the bibliography provided at the CHTN website. Since the inception of the CHTN, researchers have published more than 4,200 peer-reviewed scientific publications citing the use of CHTN samples; more than 300 patents have been issued with CHTN attribution. Notably, the CHTN has supported a generation of novel insights resulting in groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of tumorigenesis.
What does this mean for patients and society? While the impact of the basic and early translational research on patient care is difficult to quantify, the CHTN has clearly helped advance discoveries into clinical applications. Provision of CHTN specimens has supported the generation and testing of targeted monoclonal antibodies (patents issued to Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genentech, Immunogen, Pfizer/Amgen, Morphotek) that have received FDA approval or are in advanced clinical trials for use as diagnostics, therapeutics and in-patient stratification assays.
A second example is the large body of work that has utilized CHTN specimens to define subtypes/stages of tumors. Taken together with the studies utilizing CHTN specimens to identify and interrogate interindividual variability in responsiveness and toxicity to widely used chemotherapeutics as well as novel therapies, these studies are informing current personalized medicine approaches in the clinic and the ongoing implementation of clinical pharmacogenomic testing.
A third example illustrating the capacity of the CHTN approach to support novel research areas of direct clinical relevance is the use of CHTN tissues in the development and validation of revolutionary approaches to diagnosis, including handheld mass spectrometry systems for in vivo cancer diagnosis3. Finally, the CHTN has demonstrably improved the care of children with cancer in terms of identification of subtypes of childhood cancers as well as identification of markers of prognosis, potential therapeutic failure, and susceptibility to toxicities, that now guide clinical decision making.
With its focus on prospective collection, the CHTN has avoided the traps of biobanking, including biohoarding, as recognized by Robert Hewitt. The CHTN’s distribution of more than one million specimens to investigators suggests a term more informative than “biobank.” The CHTN is a biospecimen distributor or biodistributor.
- Zhang et al., Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system. Sci Transl Med. 2017. 9:PMID: 28878011.
- Catchpoole D. ‘Biohoarding’: treasures not seen, stories not told. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy. 2015;21(2):140-142.