Biobanks play a pivotal role in ensuring the success of research and clinical trials geared towards a better understanding of diseases and the formulation of better drug therapies. Biobanks collect, store, process, and share biological specimens for research and clinical studies. Unfortunately, specimens collected by biobanks are often underutilized, which is a significant concern for bioresource personnel.
On average, only about 10% of collected biospecimens are used for biomedical research. This means that 90% of resources channeled towards collecting biospecimens go to waste. This is not only unethical but also unsustainable.
What Causes Underutilization of Biospecimens?
Several factors may contribute to the underutilization of biospecimens in biobanks. In some cases, the biospecimens may have been collected without a specific need in mind. In other cases, the specimens collected may not meet the desired threshold for clinical research or be of inferior quality. As science advances, the kind of samples collected for clinical research also changes. Samples collected five years ago may no longer be relevant for clinical research today.
Lack of consent for secondary use is another reason why biospecimens may be underutilized. Other causes include restrictive bio access policies or researchers being unaware that such specimens exist.
Why is the Underutilization of Biospecimens a Problem?
Underutilization of samples or bioresources is unethical and wasteful. When donors offer their specimens for research, they expect the specimens to be put to good use and not just left to waste. Ethical considerations can be looked at in three dimensions:
1. Biobanks are compelled to share resources, including biospecimens
2. Biobanks are obligated to uphold public trust
3. Biobanks make an implicit promise to use the specimens they collect for the intended purpose
At the same time, the collection and storage of biospecimens is an expensive process. Underutilization of scarce bioresources is uneconomic and unsustainable. In the long run, this may affect the willingness of donors and funding agencies to support such ventures. Optimal sample utilization is a professional obligation for biobanks and is essential to retain the trust of donors.
Granted, the challenge with the underutilization of biospecimens is not equal across the board. While some biobanks may be overstocked, others may have demands that exceed supply. There is a need to quantify and address the underutilization of biospecimens to chart clear future directions.
Solutions for Sustainable Biobanking
Several measures can be instituted to ensure that they are put to good use once bioresources have been collected. Below are some essential considerations that can help biobanks ensure sustainable biobanking:
Access policies for bioresources need to be in place. However, they should not be too stringent to discourage researchers from seeking access to biospecimens stored in biobanks.
Biobanks need to formulate an appropriate model for the effective management of biospecimens to minimize wastage. This includes defining the types of biomaterials to be collected, how much, and for what purpose.
Fitness for Purpose
Biobanks need to identify a scientific need, and consequently, the biospecimens and associated data should be collected, making them suitable for the intended use. It is also essential to predict research needs for the future and collect biospecimens accordingly.
Informed consent, or lack of it, can lead to the underutilization of biospecimens. Tiered or general consent may allow biobanks to share biospecimens for different kinds of research. Dynamic consent models will give room for continuous discussion between researchers and sample donors.
Strategy & Marketing
Researchers may not be aware of the availability of biospecimens in biobanks. Therefore, biobanks need to undertake different approaches to make researchers aware of such materials that can be accessed. They may use their website, brochures, or published articles to disseminate such information. Commercial biobanks publish their collection catalogs online and provide researchers easy and timely access to samples of their interest. In addition to the marketing plan, biobanks should have a strategy document, keeping in mind the end users’ requirements, the infrastructural needs of the biobanks, and the current and projected services offerings.
The Role of LIMS in Managing Samples
A cloud-based biospecimen management system, also known as a biobanking LIMS, can be used to manage samples in a biobank efficiently. A biospecimen management system helps biobanks keep track of samples from when they are acquired until they have been disposed of. A LIMS helps biobanks track sample locations, maintain a chain of custody, and manage shipments at any given time. On the one hand, biobanks can use this to keep track of all the samples in their possession and raise an alert when samples are being underutilized. On the other hand, researchers can use a LIMS to discover and securely order samples they may need and track the status of their requests in real-time.
In any case, it is normal to dispose of samples that are no longer needed. A good example is COVID-19 samples which may no longer be in demand after the pandemic has passed. This will help free up space for the storage of other samples and is therefore necessary for sustainability. A biobanking LIMS can help to keep a track of such samples and optimally manage limited freezer space for long-term sustainability. This will ensure optimal utilization of samples held by the biobank.
Biobanks must devise measures to prevent wastage of collected bioresources. This may include creating suitable strategies to reduce the number of unused samples stored in biobanks, improving access policies for proper use of biospecimens, understanding the needs of their customers, and creating strategic marketing for their biobank, among others.
Moreover, underutilization of samples is likely to discourage donors from offering their specimens for research; this may not only impede future research but also affect the business plan of the biobank. Sample donors are essential to the research process, and without them (or their samples), research and clinical studies would not be possible.
Biobanks keep track of the samples they have at any given time to plan and optimize the utilization of biosamples to ensure sustainable biobanking by automating their systems using a biospecimen management system.