Virtual Biobanking Trends and Challenges in COVID-19 Pandemic Era

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In the last three decades, biobanks have evolved significantly all over the globe and recognized as an increasingly important source of data for medical research since the late 1990s. Having developed from freezer farms to rich data repositories, biobanks have now transformed from simple or ordinary sample storage systems to rich data warehouses. There is no end to the potential of these vast, multi-layered, and complex biological libraries.

These biobanks – which are used to store blood, urine, and tissue samples and relevant genomic and medical information – provide valuable insight into population studies and the study of disease, genomics, and personalized medicine. There are many different types of biobanks, but all are intended to accomplish two underlying goals: improving patient care and promoting medical development.

In a biobanking system, researchers have access to a massive amount of data from a large number of individuals. Several researchers may use the collected biospecimens and data for cross-disciplinary studies. Having access to biobanks is of vital importance because many investigators had difficulty obtaining sufficient tissue samples before biobanks were established. Several biobanks are devoted to storing and collecting samples from particular populations or from individuals suffering from specific diseases.2

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In terms of design or purpose, biobanks can be divided into different categories. Generally, disease-oriented biobanks are associated with hospitals where samples are collected to represent an array of diseases. Biobanks that collect samples from large groups of individuals do not usually have affiliations with hospitals since they obtain samples from a wide variety of individuals. Tissue banks conduct research and store tissues for use in transplantation and other purposes.3

In addition to integrating epidemiological cohorts within the general population, virtual biobanks are the other source that allows for the collection of biospecimens to adhere to local regulations. Since the emergence of biobanks from a collection of frozen specimens to the modern virtual biobanks and biosciences undertaken today, each nation and its economic and healthcare systems have the potential to be transformed. 4

In recent years, virtual biobanking has emerged as a viable option for enabling broader access to research resources. In virtual biobanking, information on biological specimens and other related items is stored in an electronic database that exists virtually, independently of the specimens’ location.

Virtual biobanks possess these characteristics, making it possible to collect biospecimens from a wide range of locations together with associated genetic-based information and other kinds of background data into a virtual repository for researchers to access via web portals or specialized software.5

In both real and virtual biobanks, there is a reciprocal relationship that is mutually beneficial. Virtual biobanks offer the ability to gather specific and rare samples which is something that large, commercial biobanks cannot provide. Researchers benefit from their experience and knowledge in locating specific types of samples by taking advantage of their extensive contacts and expertise. The researchers can also provide advice regarding the likelihood of finding a particular kind of tissue.

Despite that, virtual biobanks still rely on physical biobanks for raw materials. Virtual biobanks’ collection, approval, and consent procedures ensure that the samples can be used for commercial research even if they have not been reviewed, approved, or licensed by local or international regulations.6

It is advantageous for the patient as well as the scientist to work in this way. Scientific communities have access to high-quality samples, and donors can be guaranteed that their samples will be used in a relevant research project rather than kept for long periods in a freezer. Samples are rapid turnaround, resulting in a high level of quality; in addition, the control over sample handling, storage, and collection minimizes variation and inconsistency across samples.

In a virtual biobanking system, the biological samples are stored in a decentralized manner. A virtual biobanking system makes it possible for investigators to locate biospecimens more quickly and efficiently than contacting multiple biobanks. Especially during the early stages of a research project, such efficiency can be advantageous when determining the feasibility of proposed experiments.7

As a result of the biobanks, researchers have been able to gather the samples they have needed to study, develop and treat COVID-19. The pandemic was indeed a significant challenge for the often underfunded biobanks; however, it presented opportunities for growth in many other areas of research going forward. Uploading the sample data to a virtual platform is an essential step in the collection process that is frequently overlooked. The data can be accessed quickly by researchers around the world using digital platforms, allowing researchers to locate them quickly.8

By establishing virtual biobanks, researchers can access global data more easily, reduce the need for samples transportation for a specific kind of study, and reduce contamination risks. In the course of the pandemic, virtual initiatives have spread around the world. One example can be found in China National GeneBank, where a strategic partnership with the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data led to the establishment of a virus portal called Virus Data Integration Platform (VirusDIP).

However, data heterogeneity has also been one of the most significant barriers to virtually sharing knowledge about COVID-19. Different biobanks in many countries use different methods, adding to the complexity of high data protection regulations in each country. During the pandemic, some sample data could not be transferred to virtual biobanks due to the lack of common standards. Despite this, efforts are being made to harmonize more data around the world.9

Furthermore, as a result of these virtual biobanks, we will be able to describe and understand the treatment outcomes for this new coronavirus disease, along with the current treatment options. There is a need for an open, collaborative, virtual biobanking program that allows clinical researchers, laboratory scientists, data scientists, physicians, and epidemiologists to share evidence-based solutions and clinical expertise across laboratories worldwide.

The virtual biobanking system must be centrally managed for standardized quality control and quality assurance. The virtual biobanking system can eliminate or minimize the need for samples transportation between different localities for a specific study, thereby reducing contamination risks. Those patients diagnosed with coronavirus must upload imaging data to virtual biobanks. In order to discover and validate new therapeutic approaches as well as new disease markers, it is imperative to collect standardized and consistent information.10

As part of coronavirus diagnostic testing, biobanks must collect COVID-19 specimens and other clinical and demographic information. It is essential to implement appropriate procedures for the collection of respiratory samples for biobanking purposes, as COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness. Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) that have been purpose-built for the COVID-19 platform is an effective and efficient means of managing a data-sharing network.

By entering biological data into the LIMS, clinical trials can be designed that will address any treatment and outcome issues that are not currently being addressed. Those affiliated with the coronavirus data-sharing network will easily share any kind of information, view images and data related to their respective research interests to advance research on coronavirus and data-driven clinical care.11

Virtual biobanking systems will be more successful if integrated with the scientific communities and the various fields whose activities somehow intersect with biobanking. In a short note, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to recognize and respond to the many challenges of biobanking that serve to connect patient care with research, thus making it a more powerful, resilient, and effective biomedical and health research component.12



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