Biobanks are more than just sample repositories. As collections grow, formalizing, sustaining and maintaining them is vital, particularly with growth in areas such as personalized medicine and bioinformatics. Therefore, there may be a benefit in revising classification systems, which previously grouped biobanks according to research purpose, to instead focus on a system that would assist researchers in interpreting and reproducing their research results.
One such system is the Canadian Tumour Repository Network (CTRNet) system, which uses three classification categories: mono-user, oligo-user and poly-user biobanks. Mono-user biobanks support a single research project and have small-scale biospecimen accrual and a correspondingly smaller workforce. Oligo-user biobanks support several research groups or projects, but like mono-user biobanks, they do not distribute biospecimens to external researchers. Poly-user biobanks support research projects undertaken by external researchers and have larger biospecimen collections and greater access to resources.
CTRNet focuses on end users, serves as an evidence base and may form a basis for financial sustainability. The Canadian Institute of Health and Research has created a well-established and successful nationwide biobank network, where individual biobanks are funded by host institutions, nonprofit organizations, grants and cost recovery. In contrast, Australia’s national medical research funding agency, the National Health and Medical Research Council, did not renew biobank-enabling grant funding beyond 2014.
Rush et al.1 applied the CTRNet biobank classification system to the Australian setting to investigate the system’s relevance beyond its own national borders. There are 23 cancer biobanks in New South Wales (NSW), the Australian state with the largest population (2 of these biobanks were being planned at the time of the survey). The investigators conducted interviews with each of the banks, addressing sample characteristics, biobank networking, governance, infrastructure, best practice awareness, workforce, funding, accreditation and operations standardization, and used the responses to apply the CTRNet framework.
The researchers found that cancer biobanks in NSW were 22% mono-user (n=5), 30% oligo-user (n=7) and 48% poly-user (n=11). They note that all poly-user biobanks also featured a website. The 21 operational biobanks all reported that personnel costs are their largest expense.
Most of the surveyed biobanks (55%) indicated that their staff had received no formal biobank-specific training, with the remainder indicating that staff training consisted of following standard operating procedures and/or was performed ‘‘on the job.’’ Formal staff training was more frequently offered by poly-user biobanks, whereas mono- and oligo-user biobanks were significantly more likely to seek advice from other biobanks.
Australia had near-equal division between poly-user biobanks and mono- and oligo-user biobanks. In contrast, the majority of Canadian biobanks are mono- or oligo-user biobanks. Of some concern is that poly-user biobanks have a higher proportion of quality control measures undertaken, more formal staff training, greater conference attendance and greater professional body membership than the other classifications. The consequences of this could contribute to variable biospecimen quality between and within individual biobanks. However, with funding of biobanking in NSW remaining a major challenge, smaller biobanks may need to lean more heavily on poly-user biobanks to achieve uniformity Australia-wide.
1. Rush, A. et al. (2015) “Biobank classification in an Australian setting,” Biopreservation and Biobanking 13(3) (pp. 212-218).