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Integrated infrastructures for medical science

The annual TMF conference in Heidelberg dealt with the need for integrated science infrastructures for the advancement of medical research. The major focus was on quality criteria for medical biomaterial banks and the establishment of the German Biobank Registry as the core of a central IT infrastructure, with the overall aim of creating the right conditions for resource-saving medical research excellence in Germany.

Invitation to attend the annual TMF congress held in Heidelberg on 13th and 14th March 2012. © TMF

Comprehensive and often very costly infrastructures are indispensable prerequisites for an effective science system. In many cases, they are absolutely necessary for dealing with challenging scientific issues. This also applies to university medical centres where research and patient care are closely connected. These institutions are faced with the challenge of establishing complex and long-term sustainable infrastructure systems that are compatible with clinical settings and that bring together hospitals and medical research centres across different disciplines and locations. Progress in translational medical research, the development of new drugs and progress in knowledge-based patient care depend on the integration and accessibility of an ever-increasing amount of data.

TMF – umbrella organisation for networked medical research

The “TMF – Technology, Methods and Infrastructure for Networked Medical Research” conference was held in the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg on 13th and 14th March 2013. The conference specifically focused on the topic of science infrastructures and brought together researchers from the fields of medicine, IT and industry, including representatives from universities and hospitals, scientific and healthcare institutions, patient organisations, associations and funding organisations, with the goal of discussing the requirements of and solutions for networked medical research.

Prof. Dr. Guido Adler, chief medical director of Heidelberg University Hospital © Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg

TMF is the umbrella organisation of networked medical research in Germany. It sees itself as a platform for interdisciplinary exchange and cooperation whose objective is to solve organisational, legal-ethical and technological problems of modern medical research. 

As chairman of the Health Research Council of the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Professor Dr. Guido Adler, chief medical director and chairman of the board of Heidelberg University Hospital, is one of the most influential medical experts in Germany. In his keynote lecture, Adler highlighted the increasing importance of costly, integrated infrastructures for patient care and clinical research. Adler also discussed the need to establish effective IT systems in order to be able to carry out top-level research and use it for the benefit of patients. In this context, the conference focused specifically on biobanks, clinical trials and the establishment of biobank and clinical trial registries as important tools to promote the exchange of information and samples between research groups and institutions in Germany.

Establishment of a German Biobank Registry

Medical biobanks that store human samples and associated documents have been established independently by many hospitals and research institutes as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Many biobanks already meet high quality standards, but differ in their research and diagnostics objectives. In order to integrate and use existing resources as well as to prevent redundant research, quality standards need to be harmonised and introduced on a mandatory basis – at least as far as publicly funded projects are concerned. With the establishment of the German Biobank Registry, the foundation is laid for the harmonisation of quality criteria and for carrying out biomedical research that saves resources and promotes exchange between different institutions.

Dr. Esther Herpel, Institute of Pathology at Heidelberg University and NCT Heidelberg. © TMF

The German Biobank Registry is the first platform in Germany to provide access to all medically relevant biobanks in Germany. It is also the first platform to list contact details and information on the research institutions that operate the biobanks and the materials stored. Participating biobanks can review and update the information provided at any time. The German Biobank Registry is operated by TMF, which since 2008 has been a driving force behind its establishment.

At the conference, TMF’s Dr. Sebastian Semler explained that the German Biobank Registry mainly provides access to liquid samples (serum, plasma, urine) and Professor Dr. Michael Neumaier from the Institute of Clinical Chemistry at the Mannheim Medical Centre discussed the quality parameters that need to be taken into account when storing such samples. This said, biomedical research, and tumour research in particular, mainly involves the use of tissue samples. DNA and RNA samples are also gaining increasing importance. Dr. Esther Herpel, director of the tissue bank of the National Centre for Tumour Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg, pointed out that more than 50% of all scientific analyses are based on the use of insufficiently characterised human material and are therefore inaccurate. 

By funding the cooperation between centralised biobanks and associated strategies to standardise biobanking procedures under the German Biobank Initiative, the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is promoting the establishment of a qualified biobank infrastructure in Germany. Key in these efforts is the establishment of the German Biobank Registry listing all relevant medical biobanks in Germany. The main objective of this Registry is to standardise biobanking procedures, patient consent forms and IT structures. In addition, the intention is to promote cooperation and the exchange of data and samples on the European level, for example by cooperating with the BBMRI (Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure), which is one of the largest research infrastructure projects in Europe to date.

The BioMaterialBank Heidelberg (BMBH)

Organsiation of the BMBH - BioMaterialBank Heidelberg. © Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg
The BioMaterialBank Heidelberg builds on the successful tissue bank of the National Center for Tumour Diseases (NCT) at the Institute of Pathology at the University of Heidelberg, which has been funded by the BMBF under the National Biobank Initiative since 2011. The National Biobank Initiative runs until 2016 and promotes the establishment of five centralised biobanks in Germany - Heidelberg, Aachen, Würzburg, Berlin and Kiel – which coordinate their activities on a regular basis. The establishment of a sustainable German biobank infrastructure is coordinated by the TMF. The BMBH integrates the most important biobanks in the Heidelberg area under the auspices of the Medical Faculty of the University of Heidelberg and the NCT, providing them with central administration and comprehensive IT, data and quality management systems. In addition to the NCT Tissue Bank, which is the leading German tissue bank and has been used for more than a thousand successful research projects, the BMBH also incorporates the biobanks operated by Thoraxklinik Heidelberg, the departments of vascular surgery and cardiology and the Tissue Bank for Inflammatory Diseases Heidelberg. The BMBH stores tissue and liquid samples. It is not only used for the collection, documentation and storage of the samples, but is also a versatile and cutting-edge technology platform that can be used for histological and automated immunohistological analyses, nucleic acid and protein extractions, multi-tissue arrays, laser microdissections, virtual image analyses and MALDI imaging. The BMBH therefore represents a central translation structure for biomedical research, in particular for tumour research and personalised medicine, as Professor Dr. Peter Schirmacher, Medical Director of the Institute of Pathology at the University of Heidelberg and spokesperson of the NCT Tissue Bank, explains. The efficacy and tolerability of cancer therapies is always tested with molecular assays involving tissue bank samples before they are used for patient therapy. Tissue samples are indispensable for the identification and development of reliable diagnostic biomarkers. High-quality coordinated biobanking is crucial infrastructure for modern medicine and makes a considerable contribution to the sustainable success of biomedical research.
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