Challenges in Biobanking: Underutilization of Samples

Challenges in biobanking: Underutilization of Samples
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When it comes to predictions, I agree with Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”. Nevertheless, I dare to predict that there will be some consolidation in biobanks in the next few years. How do I get this idea? A few thoughts on this.

The underutilization of samples stored in biobanks is a big problem. It is estimated that globally only about 10% of samples are used. However, the problem with this statistical statement is that it is not relevant to an individual biobank. If they shoot once to the left of the deer and once to the right of it, then on average they have hit, but they still haven’t shot the deer. So there may very well be biobanks that currently have a much higher utilization rate.

This is good so far. However, we must look to the future. How can a high utilization rate be maintained? Because samples that are used today may soon no longer be in demand. Disease research is also subject to a certain fashion trend. Or it may be different types of samples for the same disease, e.g. in cancer, samples from metastases will be more in demand.

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In any case, the number of samples in research projects varies greatly. Very many research projects require only a few samples, some a few hundred samples and very few several thousand samples. Biobanks are therefore well advised to be in regular contact with existing customers to find out what samples these researchers will need in the future. This is why it is so important for biobanks to have a clear strategy. This strategy should be part of the business plan. Unfortunately, still few biobankers have a business plan worthy of the name. But that is another topic.

But it may also due to be the method of preservation. Formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded specimens were widely predicted to be out of use. Formalin fixed and paraffin embedded samples were predicted many times that they would no longer be used. But there was always a revival. For biobanks, this means that while they should continue to store specimens in this style, they should also pursue the newer technologies of fixation. This is a balancing act for biobankers. They have to decide today what the market needs and wants in the future. Therefore, it also makes sense to be in constant contact with the established customers of the samples.

However, new technologies can also lead to the need for completely different types of cells. A good example was the development of the technology for the induction of pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka in 2006. There are still some open questions with this technology. This could be an opportunity for biobanks. Therefore, some biobanks are also willing to store samples that may be suitable to further develop this technology. However, it must also be clear that iPSCs technology is a small market for samples. At the risk of repeating myself, it needs a clear strategy.

A strategy also includes deciding when which samples are no longer needed and thus disposed of. Alternatively, the samples can also be passed on to another biobank. However, this requires not only the interest of a biobank, but also the legal consent of the donors to pass on these samples. One disease pandemic where this scenario may soon become current is COVID-19 or the SARS-CoV-2 samples. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of biobanks have collected samples of SARS-CoV-2. Research with SARS-CoV-2 and other corona viruses will certainly continue with high intensity. However, the demand for these samples will steadily decrease, especially as new mutations will appear and their samples will also be in demand. In principle, however, discarding is a simple and targeted strategy to increase the utilization rate. It also frees up capacity for other collections.

A clear strategy is central to the survival and sustainability of a biobank. To make the right decisions, you need to know what you want to achieve. This requires a market analysis and market research. If you know the market, then you can adapt your own activities to the market. After all, you do not collect samples aimlessly, but only those for which at least a potential market exists. As a result of this strategy, the number of unused samples becomes smaller and the underutilization of samples is reduced.

Basically, one can ask why underutilization is a problem at all. Two points are central for me. 1) Underutilization causes high costs and 2) even more important: if you don’t use the samples wisely then you lose the trust of the most important stakeholder, your donor. And without donors, there is no biobank. This is because the donors assume that their samples will be used for research. You undermine the social dimension of sustainability.

Do you have any questions or comments? Leave a comment below or reach me at

Dr. Simeon-Dubach is the owner of medservice, biobanking consulting & service in Walchwil, Switzerland. He has been working in the biobanking field for over 15 years, focused on business development/planning, governance, standards/best practices and sustainability of biobanks, and collaboration between science and biomedical industries. He has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles on these topics. He coaches biobankers to realize the full potential of a biobank and to be sustainable. He chairs the ISBER Standards Committee, which oversees updates to ISBER best practices and develops tools to improve and standardize modern biobanking. He is also the section editor for Biobanking Management in the journal “Biopreservation and Biobanking” and member of the editorial board of the journal “Synergy”.