This interview was published in MTA Dialog journal (06/2019) and on www.mta-dialog.de(05.06.2019).
Around 300 experts met at the 7th National Biobank Symposium in Berlin to prepare for the challenges of the future. Biobanks help to develop innovative diagnostic methods and therapies for the treatment of patients. They are also indispensable to biomedical research. Most of the staff who take care of the samples in these facilities are medical-technical laboratory assistants. They must adapt to new challenges and complete further training as most of them did not learn about biobanking during their professional training. Dr. Sara Y. Nußbeck, who is head of the biobank at the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG), gave a lecture on e-learning opportunities for this professional group during the symposium. In an interview with MTA Dialog journal, the molecular biologist shares answers to key questions from this field of research that is today still in its early days.
MTA Dialog: How did you first get into biobanking?
Sara Y. Nußbeck: After my studies in Rheinbach and Aberdeen, I gained my doctorate in cellular and molecular immunology in Göttingen. I then researched the field of data management for biomedical research at the Department of Medical Informatics in Göttingen and later also headed up this department. After a three-week biobank training course at the University of Luxembourg in 2011 and a three-month research stay at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2013 on the subject of “Quality improvement in biobanks through training”, I took over as head of the UMG Biobank in 2015. I am also a member of the ISBER Education and Training Committee. Since May 2017, I have led the “Education and Training” working group for technical assistants at biobanks as part of the third-party funded German Biobank Alliance (GBA) project.
What does your work involve today? What do you particularly enjoy?
Nußbeck: In my position as head of UMG Biobank, I am responsible for setting up and operating this service facility. This includes determining the strategy and goals, taking responsibility for the budget and managing the ten employees. I enjoy working as part of a motivated team, supporting research together and thus improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases in the long term.
How has biobanking developed in recent years?
Nußbeck: Many centralised biobanks have been established in Germany in recent years. However, the change in perspectives among researchers regarding the advantages of central biobanks is not yet complete. Biobanks are today seen as a network within which a standardised approach should be taken to aspects such as declarations of consent, documentation and processes in order to obtain comparable samples and data. With the DIN ISO 20387 standard published in August 2018, there will also be the opportunity to obtain accreditation in this field as of summer 2019.
How are medical-technical laboratory assistants and technical assistants at biobanks involved in tasks here?
Nußbeck: The medical-technical laboratory assistants are the ones who work with the samples: they process, store, retrieve and assure the quality of the samples. Since they work directly with the biosamples, they have a decisive influence on their quality. By offering further training in these areas, we can thus establish a fundamental basis to improve the quality of these important biosamples.
What is your general assessment of medical-technical laboratory assistants’ awareness of biobanks?
Nußbeck: We learned from a survey that there are many things that even the medical-technical laboratory assistants who work in biobanks are not entirely sure about. During the tours by various institutes and clinics of our central biobank, it became clear that many university medical staff – including medical-technical laboratory assistants – were also unaware what a biobank is and what its tasks are. After explaining these, everyone deemed the existence of such facilities entirely plausible.
Where exactly is action most urgently needed?
Nußbeck: In my opinion, it is essential for every team that all members understand the bigger picture. Each contributes in-depth knowledge or practical aspects. Medical-technical laboratory assistants are often merely seen as implementers who do exactly what they are told. As part of the GBA further training programme for technical assistants at biobank, we are preparing a training programme that covers a variety of topics. We would like to foster a biobank technical assistant community that exchanges information – in a similar way to how it is entirely normal to do so on the scientific level. The technical assistants should receive background knowledge so that they can understand and comprehend why as little time as possible should elapse between the collection and freezing of biosamples from humans, for example.
How and via which organisations can technical assistants complete further training to meet the new requirements and, where necessary, access new career opportunities?
Nußbeck: At the moment, there are not any further training programmes available in Germany for biobank technical assistants. Through our third-party funded project, we have already approached the Umbrella Association for German Medical Technologists and Analysts (DVTA), Bamberg Morphology Association and the DIW-MTA institute for the training of technologists and analysts working in medicine to sound out their interest.
What offers do you have for medical-technical laboratory assistants?
Nußbeck: We are currently developing e-learning modules that technical assistants can work through independently in order to further their knowledge. These modules will initially be made available to technical assistants from the GBA community. The plan is to then roll them out for technical assistants working at other biobanks, too. In parallel, we are developing on-site training on practical topics. In January, a training course was held on “DNA isolation from blood samples”. Another course focused on the subject of “Creating tissue sections”. All these courses are currently only for GBA’s technical assistants, but could also be offered to other technical assistants after the project ends.
The interview was conducted by Mirjam Bauer.