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National biobanks for scientific research

Biobanks are of key importance for biomedical research and for improving diagnostics and therapies involving new biomarkers. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the National Biobank Initiative with a total of around 18 million euros. The initiative aims to standardize and combine the resources of five model locations, including the BioMaterialBank Heidelberg which integrates the tissue bank of the National Centre for Tumour Diseases (NCT).

Tissue samples of a multi-tissue array © Heidelberg University Hospital

“Biobanks are a central element and key resource in biomedical research. They are not just institutions that administer biological samples, they are also highly specialized technology platforms,” said Professor Dr. Peter Schirmacher, managing director of the Institute of Pathology at the University Hospital of Heidelberg. The institute is the largest pathology department in Germany and has just relocated to a cutting-edge building on the Universität Heidelberg campus close to the DKFZ. The building also houses the tissue bank of the National Centre for Tumour Diseases (NCT), which stores more than half a million formalin-fixed and well over 21,000 deep-frozen tissue samples as well as many tissue microarrays. This large collection makes the tissue banks one of the leading biobanks in Europe.

New Institute of Pathology building at the University Hospital of Heidelberg. © University Hospital Heidelberg

While the collections of biological samples of pathology institutes have been established mainly for the analysis of cell samples and for diagnostic purposes and are only secondarily for medical research, the NCT tissue bank was specifically established in 2005 for the purpose of carrying out scientific investigations in the field of tumour research. The collection contains standardized and high-quality tissue samples, tissue extracts and body liquid samples that are collected, prepared and characterized. The tissue bank contains tumour as well as non-tumour samples and liquid samples. 

Large-scale collections

Research biobanks are not just collections of samples, they are also data collections. The biological materials are linked with personal information about donors, notably their health status, which is why biobanks have to take into account data protection regulations and the protection of the personality rights of the donor. Professor Schirmacher explains that the standardized, project-specific examination of biological samples is carried out by NCT tissue bank staff according to ethical and legal regulations, and also follows “good scientific practice” by taking into account patients’ wishes. The NCT is jointly operated by the University Hospital of Heidelberg, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), the Thorax Hospital in Heidelberg-Rohrbach and German Cancer Aid. These institutions, along with others that contribute to the NCT tissue bank, are entitled to obtain tissue samples for use in preclinical studies and for other research purposes. The NCT tissue samples are available as paraffin sections or multi-tissue arrays. Research focuses mainly on molecular diagnostics, a field in which the Institute of Pathology has become the leading institute in Germany.

Collage of different technologies used by the tissue bank. © klinikum.uni-heidelberg.de/NCT-Gewebebank

Biobanks have become indispensable resources in the field of molecular diagnostics and in the search for new molecular biomarkers for human diseases. The so-called “omics” technologies such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics are now playing a key role in these areas. These technologies make high demands on the biobank samples and require careful quality control measures and strictly standardized information and data management systems. Genomics not only enables the identification of individual genes that are associated with a high risk of disease, but also the identification of a large number of genes which, taken alone, only constitute a minimal risk for the multifactorial diseases that cause the deaths of the vast majority of people, namely cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Weak genetic risk factors can only be determined with certainty in large studies involving thousands of participants, which is why biobanks need to hold a large number of high-quality samples.

The National Biobank Initiative

Professor Dr. Peter Schirmacher, Director of the Institute of Pathology at the University Hospital in Heidelberg and spokesperson of the new collaborative research center. © University Hospital Heidelberg

Germany is already home to many biobanks, which all provide excellent conditions for carrying out large-scale research. In order to maintain and expand the country’s scientific lead, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has launched the “National Biobank Initiative” which is providing around 18 million euros in funding for a period of five years. The BMBF’s main aims are to support existing biomaterial banks in expanding their infrastructure, including the development of sample and data management systems, and the standarization and integration of five German biobanks at a single location. The centralized biobanks that are receiving funding are the Centralized BioMaterialBank Heidelberg (BMBH), the Interdisciplinary Bank of Biomaterals and Data Würzburg (IBDW), the University of Kiel Centralized Biobank, the Centralized Biomaterial Bank of the RWTH Aachen (RWTH cBMBF) and the Central and Interdisciplinary Biobank at the Charité (ZeBanC). 

The NCT tissue bank is the core of the BMBF-funded Centralized BioMaterialBank Heidelberg (BMBH). Existing and planned high-quality biomaterial banks in Heidelberg will be merged and integrated into the BMBH according to the regulations, procedures and structural concept for tissue biobanking at the NCT. An administration centre dealing with issues including IT, data and quality management will be set up. The existing biomaterial quality assessment programme of the NCT tissue bank will be adopted and further developed by all biobanks in the centralized scheme; uniform IT solutions with optimized interfaces with the materials’ administration will be established. The head and principal investigator of the BMBH is Prof. Dr. Peter Schirmacher.

National and international integration

The planned integration of the biobanks is not limited to the five aforementioned locations. The BMBF’s National Biobank Initiative expressly seeks to integrate the BMBH developments into national and international cooperations. In Germany, this involves the expansion of the public relations and training programme of the NCT tissue bank and its integration into the tissue bank working group at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. As far as international cooperations are concerned, the European Commission launched the large-scale project “Biobanking and Biomolecular Researchers Research Infrastructure” (BBMRI) under the 7th FP. The preparatory phase of BBMRI came to an end in January 2011. The project will start in 2012 under the auspices of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC). The BMBH will also be involved in the new BBMRI-ERIC. This project aims to integrate all large European networks into a single network that will provide the scientific community in the EU member states with access to biobanks for research purposes.

It is expected that the integration of existing capacities will generate positive effects within a relatively short period of time, for example in the search for new molecular biomarkers that make it possible to identify cancer patients who respond to already approved pharmaceuticals. It is expected to take quite some time before results are obtained for common diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases. A large-scale long-term population study, known as National Cohort, will be used to clarify risk factors and ways to prevent and identify such diseases at an early stage. The National Cohort includes 200,000 people from all over Germany; they are undergoing medical examinations and providing information about their life style. Their blood samples are stored in a central biobank and are reexamined after a period of five years. The final evaluation will be in 10 to 20 years’ time. Researchers at the institutions involved, including the Helmholtz and Leibnitz Associations, universities and departmental research organizations hope to obtain valuable insights into the genetic factors, environmental conditions, social environments and lifestyles that potentially play a role in the pathogenesis of complex diseases.

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