Columns like this one is a great opportunity to share some thoughts with the biobanking community and get some feedback. This helps identifying those relevant to the biobankers and those that are not so relevant. Please continue to reach out to me and comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below, I will discuss what I consider the most important areas on which biobanks should focus. Of course, these activities always take place in the context of local, regional, or national regulations. However, since these are often lacking, supranational, and internationally recognized best practices and standards should be used. Especially in the case of best practices, cherry picking should be practiced actively and with a clear strategy. This strategy includes on the one hand a focus on the low hanging fruits, and on the other hand a focus on the most relevant areas for the individual biobank that require special attention. This involves a preliminary deficit analysis. A central activity is therefore the continuous gap analysis, which makes it possible to identify deficits at an early stage. Whether and what consequences this knowledge has then also depends on the priorities and external circumstances of the individual biobanks.
Another important area is how the biobank is managed. In the future, biobanks must be actively led rather than passively administered. This requires a professional business plan with a clear vision and mission. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is key. This allows suitable measures to be taken to further develop the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses. However, these measures must always take into account the opportunities as well as the risks for the activities of the biobank. This area also partly coincides with the deficit analysis mentioned above.
A professional business plan always includes a risk analysis. The limited financial and human resources can be used most efficiently in this way. Every biobank must also be aware that, as a rule, no researcher has been waiting for this particular biobank. Consequently, each biobank must analyze which products and services are required by the environment in which the biobank is located. Based on this, clear strategies must be defined in detail as to how these products and services are to be marketed.
In this context, it should be noted that the few studies available always indicate that researchers want to use local resources whenever possible. Some problems, some of them very grueling, do not occur at all or can be avoided or at least reduced (e.g., transportation, ethical challenges, etc.). However, if the local biobank is unknown or inefficient, then the researchers collect the samples and data themselves. Self collection, however, include the risk for unclear quality and lack of (biobanking) expertise. Ultimately, it is a waste of time, money and manpower and fundamentally unprofessional.
I have already talked about the importance of employees in an earlier column. It is true that this fact is not specific to biobanks. However, as modern biobanking is in a transformation phase towards professionalism, it is so important that special attention is paid to the competencies of employees. It is very helpful that various initiatives have led to employees also being able to train in biobanking. However, more such initiatives are needed and they should also be better distributed geographically. Currently, most of these courses are offered in Europe. This could be an opportunity for biobanks if they would join forces with suitable partners and offer such a course.
A latter, but for me central point for future biobanking is the shift away from samples to data. Of course, samples will continue to have a very important role in biobanking. They are very important as a source of origin for data. However, Big Data or Real Word Data will dominate the future of biomedical research. Biobanks are in a very advantageous position in this regard. They have the expertise to systematically and efficiently obtain informed consent from donors and patients. And nothing works in research without informed consent. Nevertheless, the use of resources must move away from traditional sample-focused biobanking. Storage capacity for samples can thus be reduced.
Biobanks must learn to deal with large amounts of data. I don’t mean that biobanks have to store all this data themselves. However, they have to know where to find this data and how to get access to it. Speed is a key challenge here. It is not necessary, and in some cases not economically efficient, to have all data available online at all times. However, the biobanks must be able to provide correct and realistic time information on how quickly which data will be available. Probably the greatest challenge at present is the availability of an infrastructure that can transfer large amounts of data from the various sources to the biobanks or to the researchers. Technically, this is not a problem, but the resources must be made available to build this infrastructure.
The future directions of biobanking include the further professionalization of biobanking. This includes standardization and better training of staff. Samples will continue to be important, but they will become less important than data. Biobanks must prepare for this and be prepared to make the necessary financial investments. This can only be achieved through increased collaboration with all relevant stakeholders. More on this in a next column.