Biobanking Knowledge and Practical Skills Delivered Through E-learning-based Master’s Program

Article contributed by Gabriele Hartl, Christine Mitchell, Tanja Macheiner, Brigitte Jaksa, Berthold Huppertz and Karine Sargsyan, at Medical University of Graz.

Background

With the development of modern biobanks, the need for multidisciplinary and qualified personnel has increased. Working in such an environment requires staff with a comprehensive expertise trained in different aspects of biobanking: quality, ethics, management and technical expertise.1 Subsequently, many biobanking education opportunities have emerged aiming to promote harmonization and standardization of practices by generating qualified experts of the field.2,3 In this context, potential learners can choose between different opportunities taught in different ways (face-to-face, e-learning or both) and for different lengths of time (from few days to two years). But in general, we can distinguish between three types of training: Master’s programmes, certificate courses, and biobanking workshops. On one hand, the Master’s programmes with duration of two years are organized for both students and scientists with a minimum of a bachelor degree equivalent.4,5 On the other hand, certificate courses are organized for a duration of several weeks, and some well-established biobanks organize short term workshops and training courses running over a few days for scientists willing to newly acquire or further improve biobanking knowledge and skills.6 Usually, these short trainings are topic-driven focusing on specific sub-fields of biobanking (e.g. tissue banking).7

Biobank Graz (Medical University of Graz – MUG) in Austria has established in 2015 an annual 3-day biobanking course “How to build a biobank?” and since 2016 a comprehensive Master programme. The short-term course aims to provide basic knowledge and practice information in biobanking. In contrast, the Master programme is more comprehensive (2-years duration) aiming to train professionals in the field to develop, manage and sustain a modern biobank. As it is mainly delivered through distance e-learning, the program is primarily intended for existing staff in biobanks or research institutions. E-learning, delivered via Moodle platform, allows international participants to follow a Master’s programme at a distance while working in their organisation and potentially apply their acquired knowledge in their daily workflow.

Different internal and external stakeholders have been essential to organise our Master programme and make it as complete as possible. Internally, some departments of the MUG have been involved such as the post-graduate school, research core facilities and the cell bank. Externally, experts in specific fields around biobanking (e.g. Ethical Legal and Social Implications – ELSI) have been engaged to share their expertise.

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MSc Biobanking started the first time in 2016 and each two years a new group joins the programme.

Methods

Approximately one and a half years has been necessary to create the programme (including approval by governance). The curriculum has been designed by the education team of Biobank Graz with supportive expertise from the post-graduate school. The education team of Biobank Graz is composed of several staff members with different backgrounds in healthcare management, medicine and biomedical research.

The target groups of the MSc Biobanking course are graduates with a completed degree in the field of natural sciences, medical engineering, medicine or pharmacy. The minimum requirement is a Bachelor degree or a diploma equivalent that is internationally recognized. In exceptional cases, access to the course is possible if participants can demonstrate appropriate experience in biobanking (minimum of three years) and proof of methodological knowledge in science/research and scientific working (minimum of 10 ECTS) at a recognised post-secondary educational institution.

The tuition fee for the whole program is 12,900€ (equivalent to USD 14,600). As the Medical University of Graz is a non-profit academic institution, the fees cover the costs of implementation and running the course without making any profit out of it. However, a minimum of seven registered students is required to cover the running costs.

The MSc Biobanking is structured in four semesters (equivalent to 2 years) and delivered through distance e-learning. As mentioned above, it is designed to be completed alongside full-time work. However some contents cannot be learned via online tools; this is why, every semester, a one-week on-site visit is planned during which lectures, guided tours and practical workshops are organised.

Over two years, twelve different modules are taught by the students, covering the different areas of modern biobanking (Infrastructure, Ethics, IT, Communication etc.)(Table 1).

Table 1: Course Contents of MSc Biobanking (Biobank Graz – Medical University of Graz)

SemesterModuleLectures
1Introduction and Basic Biobanking Knowledge
  • Introduction and Basic knowledge about biobanking
  • General Basic Knowledge
  • Basic Knowledge Sample Handling and Routine
  • Basic Knowledge Infrastructure
Ethics and Law
  • Ethics and Legal Aspects in General and of Biobank Graz as an Example
  • Law in General (in context of biobanking)
  • Law in Biobanking
2Collection and Management of Samples
  • Sample Collection and Management
  • Cryobiology and Storage in Liquid Nitrogen
  • Sample Transport and Shipping
Risk Management and Biobanking
  • Risk Management in General
  • Risk Management in Biobanks
  • Special Risks in Biobanking
  • Impact of Pre-analytical Variations in Research
Biobanking IT
  • Data and Types of Data
  • IT Infrastructure (Hardware/Software)
  • Data Management in Clinical Research
  • Bioinformatics and Biobank Statistics
Quality Management and Quality Control
  • Quality Management (QM) and Quality Control (QC) in general
  • QM and QC in Biobanks
3Management and Communication
  • Management and Economic Competence
  • Project and Process Management
  • Organisational Communication
  • Management and Communication /Negotiation Competence
Research I
  • Theoretical Part I
  • Theoretical Part II
  • Practical Part (on-site visit core facilities, e.g. molecular biology)
Epidemiology
  • Epidemiology in biobank
  • Public Health Usage of Biobank Data
Sustainability, Budgeting and Business Planning
  • Planning and Organisation
  • Cost Calculation in Biobanks
  • Sustainability
4Strategy and Development, Networks
  • Biobanking Societies and Networking
  • Strategy and Development, Networking in General
  • BBMRI and Trends
Elective ModuleTwo choices of module

  • Designing and Implementation of clinical studies
  • Research II (Theoretical and Practical Parts)
Writing of a Master Thesis and Oral Presentation

At the end of the program, a Master’s thesis must be written and afterwards presented orally in front of an academic jury. Upon completion, students receive a Master of Science (M.Sc.) Biobanking conformant with Bologna Process making it internationally recognised. In terms of European standards, the diploma is equivalent to 90 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System).

In parallel with the course, online and paper-based evaluation sheets are constantly collected throughout the semesters corresponding to specific lectures in order to improve contents.

At the end of the program, the overall course has also been evaluated based on numbers (1 = excellent to 4 = insufficient) and the master students were also given the opportunity to provide their comments via an open text field.

Results

Since its inception, 18 master’s students enrolled in the program with 9 master’s students in the 2016 class and 9 master’s students in the 2018 class. Geographically, the master’s students come from different countries on different continents (Africa, America and Europe). More than 70% (13/18 students) are originated from a European country (e.g. UK, Denmark, Germany, Austria). Most of the students (61%) were holding a bachelor degree or equivalent when enrolling the program, while 17% were holding a Master degree or equivalent and 22% with Medical Degree and/or PhD degree. Nearly half of the master’s students (8/18) are already managing a biobank while the other half is composed of master’s students with diverse positions (e.g. scientist, project manager, lab technician).

The program has been evaluated through twelve questions divided in four categories: overall satisfaction, organization, infrastructure, and methods/didactics. The overall satisfaction has been rated 1.19, the organisation 1.36, the infrastructure 1.21 and the methods/didactics 1.21. The comments provided by the master’s students were positive. Nevertheless, some master’s students expressed the wish to have more on-site courses.

Discussion

In view of the positive feedback from students, it is therefore planned to continue the Master’s Degree in the coming years while updating its content. Biobanking is constantly evolving in terms of practice; for instance, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) implemented in 2018 will undoubtedly impact European biobanks in terms of data handling.8 This example illustrates the need to train the master’s students in response to the arising challenges. Thus, one of our main objectives is to engage suitable experts in the new topics to rapidly adapt our curriculum.

To inform potential master’s students about the future sessions (contents, start dates etc.), we are using several communication avenues: internet homepage, conferences, biobanking societies’ newsletters and booklets. Nevertheless, there are other communication opportunities that could be used to target a young audience such as social and professional networks (Facebook and LinkedIn). However these types of advertisement and marketing are quite restricted in the academic environment.

During our experience, students from all over the world have been enrolled, making it an “international” Master’s programme. In this context, potential master’s students from low-income countries have also expressed their interest but very unfortunately do not have the means to pay the tuition fees. Indeed, some biobanks have been lately established for example in sub-Saharan Africa, to support local research and generate positive outcome to local healthcare. However, it is rather difficult to set-up biobanks in resource-challenging environment and to find qualified personnel.9 Our next planned expansion in scope is to connect appropriate scholarships with these highly-interested potential learners.

Finally, based on our experience, we conclude that a good structured organisation, a highly qualified teaching team, a comprehensive curriculum and rapid adaptation are the keys to the success of a Biobanking Master’s Degree and the satisfaction of its stakeholders.

 

References

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  2. Sargsyan K, Huppertz B, Macheiner T. Innovative ways for information transfer in biobanking. Campus-Wide Info Systems. 2013;30(5):379-385.
  3. Sargsyan K, Amtmann B, Huppertz B. Biobank graz: Training and coaching. . 2013(ESBB Conference Verona).
  4. Gormally E, Hardy I, Caboux E, di Donato JH, Hainaut P, Hofman P. Training the next generation of biobankers: A two-year master’s course in the management of biobanks. Biopreserv Biobank. 2017;15(5):438-450.
  5. Granitz G, Sargsyan K, Huppertz B. The first postgraduate master study in biobanking offered as distance learning course in english. . 2016(ISBER Conference Berlin).
  6. Kara-Borni M, Hartl G, Perz V, Story P, Gülly C, Sargsyan K. “How to build a biobank” course: Overall feedback and prospects. . 2018(EPW18 Antwerp).
  7. Kaminski A, Gut G, Uhrynowska-Tyszkiewicz I, Olender E. Tissue banking training courses: Polish experience. Cell Tissue Bank. 2013;14(1):141-145.
  8. Simell BA, Tornwall OM, Hamalainen I, et al. Transnational access to large prospective cohorts in europe: Current trends and unmet needs. N Biotechnol. 2019;49:98-103.
  9. Soo CC, Mukomana F, Hazelhurst S, Ramsay M. Establishing an academic biobank in a resource-challenged environment. S Afr Med J. 2017;107(6):486-492.
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