Vanderbilt University Medical Center Launches High-Tech Automated Biobank to Safeguard Critical Biospecimens

Vanderbilt University Medical Center Launches High-Tech Automated Biobank to Safeguard Critical Biospecimens
Leaders in VUMC’s newly expanded biobanking resource pose in front of the off campus “BioStore” facility. They include, from left, Cara Sutcliffe, MS, Karen Beeri, MS, James Goldenring, MD, PhD, and Amy Martinez, PhD. (Photo credit: Susan Urmy, VUMC)
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Vanderbilt University Medical Center has opened a state-of-the-art automated biobanking system that can store as many as 10 million biospecimens, including blood and body fluids, tissue, and genetic and protein material, at temperatures down to minus 80 degrees Celsius.

The “BioStore” was purchased from its manufacturer, Massachusetts-based Azenta Life Sciences, with the help of a $2 million grant from the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and significant institutional funding from VUMC.

BioStore is the centerpiece of a comprehensive, automated shared resource to which VUMC has committed more than $5 million for storing, managing and protecting biospecimen repositories that are critical to advancing personalized medicine, cancer research and vaccine development, among other fields.

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The VUMC Office of Research, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (VICTR), Department of Medicine, Section of Surgical Sciences, and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences have committed funds to support BioStore’s purchase and operation.

A Grand Opening Town Hall to introduce the VUMC Biospecimen Storage Facility to Vanderbilt researchers will be held from 3-4:30 p.m. Sept. 15 in 202 Light Hall. Those attending can sign up to tour the off-campus facility.

Measuring about 40 feet long and 14 feet tall, the BioStore features both minus 20 degrees Celsius and minus 80 degrees Celsius zones for optimal preservation of multiple types of biospecimens. Operated by the VANTAGE (Vanderbilt Technologies for Advanced Genomics) core, the BioStore provides multiple layers of power and cooling redundancy to protect sample integrity.

“This allows you to sleep at night,” said James Goldenring, MD, PhD, vice chair for Surgical Research in the Section of Surgical Sciences, Paul W. Sanger Professor of Experimental Surgery and principal investigator of the NIH grant.

The ability to collect, store and manage huge amounts of clinical, genetic and biomarker data is an essential part of investigations aimed at determining why, for example, a given malignancy develops, who is at greatest risk, and whether the cancer is responding to a particular treatment.

Due to the sheer size of these biorepositories, it is difficult for individual investigators and even research groups to organize, retrieve and protect samples, many of which are of international importance and could not be replaced if lost.

Goldenring, known internationally for his studies of gastric cancer, said he once lost 15 years of samples when a laboratory freezer went down over a holiday weekend. Even when a standard lab freezer door is opened to retrieve a sample, the temperature inside can rise by 20 degrees.

In comparison, the BioStore provides rapid, automated sample selection and loading to minimize temperature fluctuations. “The robot is the only thing that touches the sample,” Goldenring said.

Last summer, VUMC’s BioVU, one of the world’s largest biobanks with more than 280,000 DNA samples from a single health care system, was migrated to BioStore’s minus 20 degrees Celsius bank.

Compared to the automated freezer that previously housed BioVU, BioStore offers a dramatic improvement in sample retrieval speeds and a notable decrease in error rates and downtime, officials said.

“In addition to providing critical new BioVU infrastructure, the BioStore significantly advances Vanderbilt’s biospecimen research capacity and capabilities,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC’s Chief Scientific and Strategy Officer and holder of the Brock Family Directorship in Career Development.

“I’m grateful for Dr. Goldenring’s leadership, the expertise of the Office of Research team, and the transdisciplinary support that brought the BioStore to our institution,” Pietenpol said. “The development of this facility embodies Vanderbilt’s collaborative spirit and paves the way for exciting discoveries.”

VANTAGE is now accepting requests from Vanderbilt researchers to store and manage their biospecimen collections at the automated storage facility. Samples are dropped off and picked up at the VANTAGE laboratory in the basement of Medical Center North and transported at temperature via courier to the automated storage facility.

Project managers for developing the new biobanking resource are Karen Beeri, MS, VANTAGE biobanking core manager; Amy Martinez, PhD, scientific program officer in the VUMC Office of Research; and Cara Sutcliffe, MS, project manager at the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute.

“Ms. Beeri and the VANTAGE and project team have done a wonderful job launching the Biospecimen Storage Facility,” said VANTAGE Scientific Director Simon Mallal, MBBS, Professor of Medicine and the Major E.B. Stahlman Chair in Infectious Diseases and Inflammation.

“Researchers can have the highest confidence that their collections are secure and well-managed in the new facility,” he said.

Mallal is a member of the resource’s Operations Advisory Committee (OAC), which provides strategic oversight over access and pricing, sample integrity/security, and day-to-day operations.

Other OAC members are:

  • David Calkins, PhD, assistant vice president for Research, VUMC;
  • Rob Carnahan, PhD, associate director, Vanderbilt Vaccine Center;
  • Celestial Jones-Paris, PhD, senior project manager, VICTR;
  • Susan Meyn, senior director, VUMC Office of Research;
  • Martha Shrubsole, PhD, research professor of Medicine, Division of Epidemiology;
  • Yan Ru Su, MD, director, Core Laboratory for Cardiovascular Translational and Clinical Research;
  • Mary Kay Washington, PhD, MD, principal investigator, Cooperative Human Tissue Network (CHTN) Western Division;
  • Kerry Wiles, program director, CHTN; and
  • Roy Zent, MD, PhD, vice chair for Research, Department of Medicine.

Funding for BioStore was provided by the NIH Office of Research Infrastructure Programs High-End Instrumentation Grant S10OD025092.