Do We Need Biobankers at All?

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No one can tell the number of biobanks worldwide. Several years ago, I was involved in a survey at a university center in Switzerland. We wanted to find out how many biobanks there were in this center. A biobank was defined as an infrastructure that systematically collects samples and data for a specific purpose. The survey was sent to all research groups by the university management. Approximately 50 biobanks were identified.

In Switzerland, there are five university centers of similar size, as well as other larger clinics and academic and commercial research centers. Therefore, I would guess that there are at least 350 biobanks in Switzerland. Extrapolated, clearly more than 200,000 biobanks can be expected worldwide.

But only a few of them also call themselves biobanks. Many people who run a biobank do not see themselves as biobankers, but as researchers. I refer to these biobanks as “corridor biobanks” because the freezers of these biobanks are often placed in corridors of research departments.

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About one third of all scientific publications on biomedical research use samples and data. Based on the above calculations, one may assume that a large proportion of the samples and data come from corridor biobanks. Since these samples are not always of clearly defined quality, this quality issue may explain the very low reproducibility of published studies.

However, at least in academic research, a focus on quality tends to be penalized rather than rewarded. Quality processes require financial and human resources. This delays publications. But publications are the key driver in academia. It is an open secret that poor quality research still can be published even in prestigious journals. The fact that there are not more retractions of publications speaks rather against the current system of peer review in combination with a financially very lucrative oligopoly of scientific publishing houses.

An efficient way to address this problem, at least for research with samples and data, is to professionalize modern biobanking. The first important steps have already been taken. Probably the most important one was that biobankers organized within the biobanking society ISBER published the Best Practices for biobanks. The content of the Best Practices are self-regulation and represent the common knowledge of the biobanking community since everybody can contribute. Currently, the 4th edition of the ISBER Best Practices is out. These Best Practices provide the framework for how a biobank should be managed professionally.

However, regulations and Best Practices are only helpful if they are also implemented. This requires appropriate personnel. They must be trained accordingly. Since a few years, postgraduate courses in biobanking have been developed globally initiated and run by various universities and organizations. They vary in length and participants can choose the format that suits them best. However, they must continue to evolve, both in depth and in readiness. There is also a need for an internationally recognized qualification and proficiency testing of the participants.

But it is not enough to educate these individuals. All people involved in biobanking are encouraged to actively highlight the importance of professionally organized and managed biobanks within their communities. They should also contact the researchers who run corridor biobanks and discuss with and propose to these researches to manage their biobanking activities. This would reduce the burden for something these researchers often only do out of necessity and not because they want to. By doing so, this would allow researchers to focus on their core competencies. After all, such professionally managed biobanks can not only vouch for better quality samples and data. They can also do this much more efficiently. In order to guarantee this, however, personnel must be well trained for all the special and different activities of biobanking.

The field of biobanking is very broad and complex. It is especially interesting for young professionals. In the future, there will be a need for more rather than less personnel in biobanking. The future of modern biobanking looks promising. However, the biobanking community must continue on its chosen path in a targeted manner. High-quality training of potential biobankers at all levels is crucial. Therefore, the question of whether there is a need for biobankers at all can be answered unequivocally with YES.

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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”.