As modern medical science continues to evolve, it’s becoming increasingly rare that relatively simple discoveries (like those we saw in the early 20th century) are sufficient to advance human health. Why? Because these days, the questions medical researchers ask are, to put it bluntly, more complex. For instance, scientists now estimate mutations in 1% of our genes can lead to cancer – and that’s an enormous number of independent hypotheses to test.
In order to find answers to complicated human health questions, researchers need samples to analyze and data . . . lots and lots of data.
There’s no question that biorepositories can provide the databases and biosample collections required. But maintaining a biobank is typically far beyond the scope of an individual research project.
So, now more than ever, collaboration between biorepositories and researchers is essential for the advancement of medical science. Unfortunately, collaboration between these two groups is easier said than done. As I see it, here are the key reasons why it’s so difficult to share bioresources – and how to make it easier:
1. Collaboration isn’t the norm in public health research. One of the cornerstones of scientific research – the reporting of reproducible results to the scientific community –plays less of a role in the field of medical research. (We all know that multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies keep their progress under-wraps while testing new drugs.)
However, if medical research is going to tackle the big problems of the 21st century, the concept of collaboration in the field needs a massive overhaul. Results of investigations need to be shared through open access protocols, especially for projects supported by public funding. Recently, the need for increased collaboration has been recognized by research finding groups. The Welcome Trust, for example, promotes “greater access and use of data in ways that are equitable… Ethical… And efficient.” Increasing the sharing of information and biosamples between researchers can have a positive impact on medical research as a whole.
2. There’s no universal way to cite the contribution of a biobank. Academic research papers are uniquely identified with a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). Although there have been attempts to create a universal standard for biobanks (the BioSHaRE consortium, e.g.), none have gained a firm foothold across the medical research community.
Biobank facilities must be appropriately recognized for contributions they make to any published research, and medical researchers need a unique and universally-accepted way to cite them in their publications. Standardized citations would increase the visibility of biobanks and lead to increased collaboration.
3. It’s difficult to judge the contribution of a biobank in medical research. Academic journals are judged by their impact factor, a metric created by the number of citations to recent articles published in the journal. Journals with higher impact factors are, in theory, more relevant in a given field of research. However, there is no way to measure the impact or quality of a biobank beyond the facility’s reputation in the academic community.
A group of researchers have proposed a Bioresource Research Impact Factor (BRIF) to measure the research utilization of a repository’s resources. The BRIF would include various components, such as:
- Age and size of the facility
- Number and impact of publications and patents citing the bioresource
- Indicators of the value of the collection, like the number of rare samples or how extensive the collection is
- How well the facility complies with standard operating procedures and its success under independent audits
- How many projects the facility supports
Establishing a standard like the BRIF, the advocates say, would create a positive feedback loop in the sharing of bioresources: Sharing a collection leads to a higher impact factor, which leads to more researchers requesting samples, and so on.
Given the critical importance of biorepositories in modern medical research, it’s time to enhance collaboration between medical researchers and biobankers. Establishing protocols to share information and developing methods to appropriately cite and recognize the contributions of each facility are important first steps in that process.