Failure to invest in biobank ‘may jeopardise storage of vital tissue samples’

The Government’s failure to invest, as promised, in a national biobank could jeopardise the storage of tissue samples vital for research in the development of new patient treatments, medical experts claimed.

It could also jeopardise potential investment by pharmaceutical companies who require access to huge amounts of tissue samples to conduct research.

The importance of preserving tissue samples is illustrated by Eoin Gaffney, medical director of charity Biobank Ireland Trust, who said a friend of his with recurrent cancer, who is now tumour-free, had a treatment based on biobank tissue. “His new treatment, developed from biobank tissue, has melted away his tumours, and his scans are clear. The drug used to treat him was developed five or six years ago using frozen biobank tissue,” he said.

His friend’s successful treatment illustrated the “whole raison d’être” for biobanks, Prof Gaffney said, because it helped in the development of “personalised” medicine.

The Government promised to take steps “to establish a national biobanking system and support infrastructure by 2016”.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Health Research Board (HRB) is working with other relevant funders towards establishing this system and support infrastructure which will include proposed governance arrangements and funding mechanisms within that timeframe.”

Prof Gaffney estimated €500,000 from government would fund the necessary staff in year one of a national biobank. He said a biobanking network was recognised by academics and industry as the best way to ensure quality research samples. In the last 15 years, 30% of published medico-scientific research data has been found to be invalid or misleading due to the poor quality of samples. Without a biobank network, samples could go to waste.

Hospitals around the country currently have their own biobanks, while a number, including St James’s Hospital, where Prof Gaffney is a consultant histopathologist, Cork University Hospital, the Mercy University Hospital and University Hospital Galway are part of a biobank network.

However, Cork and Galway’s participation is hindered by a lack of staff.

In St James’s, 97% of breast cancer patients had consented to donate tissue for research, he said.

Biobanks are seen as crucial for studying cancer, but Prof Gaffney said they could equally be used in the study of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Today will see the launch of the Irish Biobank Cancer Database at a symposium in St James’s Hospital to mark 10 years of biobanking in Ireland. The database, developed by Biobank Ireland with industry partner SuprTecBox, will enable Irish academic and industry- based researchers, for the first time, to have access via a web portal to coded tissue samples for national and international collaborations.

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