Those who do not try will never succeed, though failure can often be a stepping stone to later success. However, for all biobanks the risk of failure from closure also includes problems inherent in the institution’s responsibility toward its biosamples. Stephens and Dimond (2015) explore this phenomenon in two papers, looking at events leading up to the closure of an anonymized disease-specific biobank in the United Kingdom and how staff managed biosample dispersal from a unique tissue collection surrendered to the biobank in its final stages.1,2
Biobanks are more than just the biosample and data collections that the institution handles. Stephens and Dimond consider staff experiences and recycling of the initial ideology/intention behind setting up the biobank, in addition to sample disposal concerns. The research conducted by the two authors was at the request of the anonymized biobank, XBank, and took place during interviews carried out over the two years prior to closure. During this time, management learned of funding suspensions, staff redundancies, sample target insufficiencies and acquisitions, business remodeling, and eventual closure. The interviews reflect personal observations made by staff during these phases.
Formed by charitable and governmental oversight and funding, XBank was established to maximize benefit to research and to society in matching tissue availability with research needs. It arose during a time of public distrust in the system, caught at the tail end of retained tissue scandals, which involved diagnostic samples being kept without patient or family knowledge or consent. XBank’s main mandate, therefore, was to influence the nationwide biobanking model and create a network, in addition to acting as repository of disease-specific biosamples.
XBank’s collection methodology involved liaising and networking with donor institutions (hospitals), with broad consent obtained from patients for unspecified studies; the biobank had unspecified goals with no study protocols in place. XBank operated outside the clinical and research communities, which Stephens and Dimond note may be the reason for the biobank’s eventual failure.
Initially, XBank asked for tenders from donating institutions regarding biosample supply contracts. Although responses were good, these rarely translated into a steady supply of tissue samples and the biobank failed to achieve collection targets. Either hospitals had overestimated sample collection predictions or the biobank found difficulty in coordinating with clinical staff for consent and procurement. As XBank increasingly failed to meet its targets, funders withdrew financial support and requested remodeling. Instead of focusing on acting as a biobank, XBank staff were reassigned to focus on the alternative target of “facilitating exchange within the broader biobanking community.”
With this reassignment came staff layoffs, leaving those retained with survivor guilt, uncertainty and apprehension. Alongside a sense of failure, however, came the realization that focusing on leadership within the community made XBank less competitive with other biobanks.
Immediately prior to stopping biobanking activities, XBank received the donation of an entire tissue archive from a hospital. The hospital had no further use for these paraffin embeds, considering them as waste and lacking in value, but offered them to XBank for retrieval. The biobank took control of the archive, moving the three 18-tonne truckloads into temporary storage just as funders withdrew support. With biobank closure imminent, the XBank team needed to deal with dispersal and disposal of its stock, making sure that valuable specimens were not wasted. Since sample collection was undertaken with no specific research projects in mind, the team had to identify and market the biosamples to the research community. In addition to the existing biosamples in storage, the XBank team also had to distribute this donated archive, persuading researchers and other biobankers of their value, often hampered by inadequate record keeping and sample identification. They also had to examine original consent procedures to ensure that donor wishes were adequately served with the transfers.
After another two years, XBank activity ceased, with staff numbers reducing until eventual closure. Most moved on to other research and biobanking positions, taking experience and mission values gained under XBank with them into new employment.
In summing up the observations made by Stephens and Dimond, it seems that failure to achieve targets and the subsequent withdrawal of biobank funding contributed to the eventual closure of this biorepository. Closure occurred despite changing direction in an effort to continue operations, by offering leadership within the community rather than acting in competition with members. Recycling the primary promise, as the authors describe this redirection, did not occur with a new business model but instead it continued with staff as they themselves relocated within the biobanking and research community.
Closure is always a risk when setting up and managing a biobank; Stephens and Dimond provide useful oversight of an institution going through its final stages, with observations that could be of value to biobank managers globally.
1. Stephens, N. and Dimond, R. (2015) “Closure of a human tissue biobank: Individual, institutional, and field expectations during cycles of promise and disappointment,” New Genetics and Society, 34 (pp. 417–36).
2. Stephens, N. and Dimond, R. (2015) “Unexpected tissue and the biobank that closed: An exploration of value and the momentariness of bio-objectification processes,” Life Sciences, Society and Policy 11(14). doi: 10.1186/s40504-015-0032-0.