Interview with Dr. Robert Hewitt, Biosample Hub

Image: Biosample Hub
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Dr. Robert Hewitt, ISBER past-president & ESBB co-founder

The pharmaceutical industry has the infrastructural and financial resources to bring novel drugs and vaccines into the clinic. It would greatly help expedite their timeline if they had access to biobanks at academic institutes, in order to better understand disease biology and inform research strategy. Biosample Hub fills this gap by providing a platform for biospecimen providers in the public sector (eg. academic biobanks) to meet and connect with requesters from biotech and pharma companies. Recently, Biobanking.com spoke with Dr. Robert Hewitt, Founder and Manager of Biosample Hub, to understand more about the organization, its current challenges and future aspirations.

What led you to found the Biosample Hub?

I founded Biosample Hub (BH) because I believe we need a new type of organisation to connect academic biobanks with industry. An organisation that promotes direct communication and free interaction between sample collectors and the sample end-users. An organisation that places the highest value on ethical issues like sample traceability and financial transparency, and not an organisation that is driven by profit.

BH has the mission of connecting academic biobanks with industry researchers to encourage the supply of biospecimens needed for development of new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. This mission is the primary focus and driving force of BH.

Why is it important for Biosample Hub to be a not-for-profit organization?

Biosample Hub is based on the belief that human tissue should be acquired and supplied through non-commercial procedures. Many people share this view, especially in academia. The fact that BH is not-for-profit demonstrates our commitment to this principle and so generates trust.

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What steps do you take to ensure patient confidentiality, and accountability of samples that are in use?

BH does not handle patient samples and data in any way. Rather, it is a platform that enables direct contact and interaction between providers and requesters of samples, so that they can understand each other’s strengths and needs and enter into partnerships where appropriate.

Having said this, the direct communication between provider and requester that is fostered by BH does have major benefits for the accountability (or traceability) of samples. This direct communication makes it easier for the biobank to be sure of the sample destination and the purpose for which it is used. It also makes it easier for the end-user to be informed about the sample origin and how it has been handled during and after collection.

How has COVID-19 changed the function and priorities of Biosample Hub?

COVID-19 has been a major challenge for all of us in the biobanking field. Some biobanks have simply closed down their collection activities due to difficulties sourcing material and concerns about risk of exposure. Others have needed to switch focus, collect new sample types and operate according to different procedures.

BH is a young organization and was only fully launched in July this year. No doubt, COVID-19 has slowed our growth, but nevertheless we are making good progress with increasing numbers of members and satisfied requesters. Our mission, values and function remain exactly the same, despite the pandemic. Priorities have changed only in the sense that requests for COVID-19 samples are given the highest priority in view of the urgency of the research. Requesters are always made aware of the COVID-19-Ready Biobank Registry of BBMRI-ERIC and ISBER.

How do you reconcile ethical, legal and governmental regulations to facilitate global sample exchange?

BH does not handle patient samples or data. Users of the platform interact directly with each other and it is their responsibility to observe their own local/national regulations.

Having said this, use of the BH platform is compatible with the strictest regulations since it promotes the highest ethical standards. It is not-for-profit, provides financial transparency and allows sample traceability. The platform allows users to edit their own profile and to specify the conditions they require for exchange of samples. To give one example, some biobanks state in their profiles that they require a research collaboration in order to provide samples.

Where do you see the future of the biobanking industry in the next 5 years?

I believe that over the next 5 years, stakeholders will expect an increasing level of transparency about the biospecimen procurement process. As patients become more involved in their own health care, they will want to know more about the fate of the samples they donate. Also, as researchers become more concerned about biospecimen quality, they will want to know more about the origin of the samples they procure. So policies will reflect this growing demand for traceability, and furthermore technological solutions like blockchain will be introduced to ensure it.

Another change I can see coming is that as a legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general public will become more aware of the vital role that industry (pharma and biotech companies) plays in providing us with new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. As a result, I believe that cooperation between academia and industry will be seen in an increasingly positive light.

 

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