Biobank Versus Biorepository: What’s in a Name?

Biobank Facilities
Typical Biobank Facilities

Large-scale analysis of study populations may help develop a deeper understanding of the multi-factorial basis of disease and may form the basis for advancement in prevention, diagnosis and  treatment. Biorepositories (or biobanks) are mostly tissue banks that collect and store a large number of biological samples play a crucial role in such studies. In recent times, both the terms “biobanks” and “biorepositories” have been used interchangeably. In the United States, the National Cancer Institute thinks of biorepository as a place or organization where biospecimens are stored. Interestingly, the term “biobank” is also being used in the same context in the United States and Europe1. In this article, we will explore the parameters that have traditionally defined both terms, and discuss the perspectives of experts in the field.

What is a Biorepository?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “biorepositories are ‘libraries’ where biospecimens are stored and made available for clinical or research purposes.” A biospecimen is defined as any biological material, such as tissue, blood, plasma, or urine, and is often accompanied by medical and demographic information. In biorepositories, specimens are derived from variety of sources including human, animal or plant life. Ideally, samples are collected, processed, stored, and distributed in a manner to support not only current use, but also future scientific investigation2,3. An example of a biorepository is the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), which serves as a global resource of cell lines and other materials that can be used for a wide variety of research purposes.

The four main operations of a biorepository are collection, processing, storage and distribution.

  • Collection – this is the first step where biological specimens are obtained and recorded in the records. There are several ways of recording a sample, and usually involves scanning the sample’s barcode, wherein the sample information is then transferred into the biorepository’s laboratory information management system. Information recorded would include sample origin, date of sample collection, and sample type.
  • Processing – This phase involves the testing and preliminary processing of the specimens to minimize sample-to-sample variation and preparing them for storage. One example is the fixation of tissue to maintain tissue morphology for future sectioning and staining.
  • Storage – After the collection and processing of biospecimens, they are stored according to the best conditions required for longevity of the samples. The storage conditions are logged into the information management system, which includes details such as storage date and location.
  • Distribution – This is the final step in the specimen lifecycle, wherein the biorepository fulfills an order or request a research team for a sample from its inventory4.

The original intent for establishing a biorepository will dictate the type of specimens it will hold, and the duration of sample storage. Currently, human biorepositories are used for understanding diseases,  and for developing prophylactic and therapeutic strategies. Although the scope and nature of biorepositories may vary, they thrive  to comply with standardized laboratory guidelines to preserve and document the quality of their specimens. Most repositories are usually subject to review committees or boards and have a vetting process in place for fulfilling requests for samples. The review committees also oversee a wide range of issues including ethical considerations and protection of patient information5,6


What is a Biobank?

A biobank is a type of biorepository containing biological samples used for human research. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a biobank is “a collection of biological material and the associated data and information stored in an organized system, for a population or a large subset of a population.”7

Biobanks can be categorized based on a number of different approaches such as population, disease state and setting. Biobanks can also vary according to the nature of the specimens, contents, participants, and scale. Thus, a single biobank can be classified in multiple ways based on any of the above factors.However, the current widely-accepted classification is from the pan-European Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI). They distinguish only two types of biobanks which are:

  • Disease-oriented biobanks where it contains clinical data and tissue samples
  • Population-based biobanks where the focus is on the study and development of complex and common diseases.1

With the emergence of next-generation sequencing technologies and the ability to better study human and pathogen genomics for precision medicine approaches, biobanks have become a critical resource for scientists. The specimens in biobanks and the derived data can support investigations of cancers, rare diseases, human pathogen interactions, and assessment of multifactorial genetic biomarkers, in order to improve patient outcomes7.

The Difference Between Biorepository and Biobank – Recent Perspectives

In the literature, the terms “biorepository” and “biobank” are often used interchangeably and the distinction between them is getting increasingly blurry. Traditionally, collections of human biological material are referred to as ‘biobanks’, while biorepositories refer to collections of specimens from all living organisms. This distinction, however, has been overlooked in the past, with animal tissue repositories also being termed as biobanks by some groups.

To address this constantly evolving usage of both terms, Andrew Brooks, Professor of Genetics at Rutgers University, recently proposed a novel definition for biobanks and biorepositories – “When I think about the working definition of a biobank, I look at that as a focused program that has defined end points in mind for a defined community, whereas a biorepository is a program that is looking at a more global, collaborative standpoint with a wider variety of biomaterials, with an eye on collaboration now and in the future”8. With large-scale research studies becoming more prevalent, it is important now more than ever for experts in the field to establish guidelines on the nomenclature and classification of repositories that store biological specimens.


  1. The difference between biobanks and biorepositories. Geneticist Inc. Published: 2018. Accessed: September 15, 2020.
  2. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research Branch What are biospecimens and biorepositories? Accessed September 15 2020.
  3. Artene SA, Ciurea ME, Purcaru SO, et al. Biobanking in a constantly developing medical world. ScientificWorldJournal 2013: 343275.
  4. Lori DC (editor): Best Practices for Repositories: Collection, Storage, Retrieval and Distribution of Biological Materials for Research. Vancouver, Canada, International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories, 2012.
  5. First-Generation Guidelines for NCI-Supported Biorepositories. Federal register 2006; 71(82). Notice by the National Institutes of Health. Accessed: September 15, 2020.
  6. Chen H, Pang T Policy and practice: a call for global governance of biobanks. Bull World Health Organ 2015; 93: 113–7.
  7. Martina Siwek, PhD. An Overview of Biorepositories – Past, Present, and Future. Military Medicine, Volume 180, Issue suppl_10, 1 October 2015, Pages 57–66
  8. Biobanking: A Thing Of The Past? Bio IT World. Published: 2019. Accessed: September 15, 2020