Nature recently visited the first biobank designed to systematically harvest and preserve tissues taken from a large, genetically engineered, non-human animal: the pig.1 Ludwig Maximilian University’s Munich MIDY-PIG Biobank is a novel repository whose porcine tissues could hold the key to understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms that produce diabetes complications like heart and kidney disease, blindness, and neurovascular degeneration.
Because pigs bear physiological and metabolic similarity to humans, the porcine diabetes model plays a crucial role in diabetes research. Relying on genetic engineering and cloning technologies, the biobankers produced pigs with a damaged MIDY gene, rendering them insulin-dependent diabetic. They bred these with healthy pigs to yield second-generation litters with an approximately equal split between diabetic piglets and healthy controls.
At the time of Nature’s visit, one of these pigs, Boar 1339, became the twelfth addition to the biobank’s stores. Upon its arrival, the three-and-a-half-year-old, 226-kilogram “donor” faced precise harvesting by a team of 25 veterinary surgeons and technicians, following an 80-page protocol designed to ensure complete preservation of all porcine tissues in just over two hours.
Biobank founder and veterinary surgeon/geneticist Eckhard Wolf stressed that this commitment to limiting resource waste allows the biobank to provide biospecimens from the same animal to multiple research teams, streamlining responsible harvesting of research animals. Toward this end, the teams employ a variety of sampling and preservation techniques to ensure a wide representation of samples suitable for structural and molecular analysis. Taken together, this system produces an exact three-dimensional replica of the cells harvested and allows researchers to perform molecular profiling and characterize cellular anatomy using a single sample.
While the pig biobank offers researchers around the globe free access to the biospecimens, other animal biobanks have received limited interest from the research community. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute of Cambridge, UK, for instance, has received a mere 50 requests for its tissues, drawn from 940 mouse lines. It remains to be seen whether the pig biobank will garner more research attention. However, at the time of processing, several regional researchers were already in attendance, collecting biospecimens pertinent to the diabetes-associated conditions they study.
Wolf and the Munich MIDY-PIG Biobank have begun to expand the scope of their repository to include other genetic porcine models, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Additional reading on this and other biobanking projects that increase our understanding of human disease and the development of personalized medicine can be found here.2
1 Abbott, A. (2015) “An inside look at the first pig biobank,” Nature, 519: 397–398, doi:10.1038/519397a
2 Tsai, R. (2015) “