Biobanks are a fundamental component of medical research. They collect, process and store biospecimens such as blood or tissue and make them available for research projects together with relevant data. "Modern biobanking stands for interdisciplinarity, professional sample handling and networked interoperability. Standardised cooperation between biobanks as well as cooperation with networked multi-centre research initiatives play a central role in this," said PD Dr. Dr. Michael Kiehntopf, conference president of the 10th National Biobank Symposium, welcoming the approximately 300 participants in Berlin. Under the motto "Sustainable anchoring of biobanks as research infrastructure", experts exchanged views on the latest developments in biobanking from 1 to 2 June 2022. The symposium was jointly organised by the Technology and Methods Platform for Networked Medical Research (TMF e.V.) and the German Biobank Node (GBN).
Biobanks have developed into powerful infrastructures for medical research over the last ten years – not least due to the innovative funding policy of the federal government and funding agencies, who recognised the importance of biobanking for excellent, reproducible research at an early stage. In recent years, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has invested heavily in the networking of biobanks – the German Biobank Alliance (GBA), which now comprises 37 sites, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. "Biobanking provides central infrastructures, especially for cooperation in large research networks, and thus offers enormous opportunities for health research," said Kiehntopf.
Biobanks within the network of large research initiatives
The advantages of effective biobanking were particularly evident in the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in the National Pandemic Cohort Network (NAPKON) of the Network of University Medicine (NUM), around 420,000 biosamples from over 5,000 patients were obtained in three cohort studies, which are now being used to systematically analyse the long-term effects of COVID-19.
In the Medical Informatics Initiative (MII), biospecimens and patient data from routine care are to be made jointly usable for research in the future. To this end, biobanks and data integration centres at university hospitals in Germany will be linked at the technical and regulatory level. In May 2021, the project "Aligning Biobanking and DIC efficiently" (ABIDE_MI) was launched for this purpose, involving 24 university hospitals, the MII coordination office and the GBN. "For the future, we aim for researchers in hospitals to have a single point of contact in the form of a query and analysis portal that identifies patient cohorts and corresponding biospecimens that are suitable for a particular research project, and to which they can apply for the use of the data and samples," explained Sebastian C. Semler, TMF managing director and head of the MII coordination office.
For quality in biomedical research
Funding organisations such as the German Research Foundation (DFG) are aware of the importance of biobanks for the quality of biomedical research projects and are therefore committed to more sustainable biobanking. "Quality-assured biobanking is an important prerequisite for meaningful research results in medicine and biomedicine. The Standing Senate Commission on Fundamental Questions in Clinical Research has published a guideline for applicants and reviewers in 2021 that takes this aspect into account, along with other quality-promoting measures," said Dr. Katja Hartig, programme director of the "Life Sciences 3: Medicine" group of the DFG. "In addition, when advising applicants and thus in the planning phases of projects, we try to work towards using already existing professional biobanks and applying for project-specific costs."
Linking the initiatives creates sustainability
Prof. Dr. Christopher Baum, Chairman of the BIH Board of Directors and Director of Translational Research at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, advocated an even closer linkage of existing research initiatives and structures. "For higher research quality, improved research efficiency and measurable benefits for patients, we need stronger networking. We need a master plan of responsibilities to create a sustainable link between the world of biospecimens, the Medical Informatics Initiative and the other relevant national and international infrastructures," Baum emphasised at the Biobank Symposium.
In this sense, GBN director Prof. Dr. Michael Hummel would like to see "coordinated networking, standardisation, harmonisation and further development of the existing infrastructures. In this way, the potential of the GBN and the Biobank Alliance could also be developed even more, linkage with patient data achieved and long-term use of samples secured."
European networking is gaining in importance
At the European level, biobanks have been networking since 2013 within the European network BBMRI-ERIC. Around 700 biobanks from 23 European member states and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are connected via the BBMRI portal and enable the pan-European exchange of biospecimens and data to strengthen medical research. "Germany has supported BBMRI-ERIC intensively from the very beginning and has played an active role in shaping it. Within this networking, the GBN, GBA and TMF are taking on a pioneering role at the European level," emphasised Prof. Dr. Jens Habermann, Director General of BBMRI-ERIC. This commitment to European infrastructure development will become even more important in the future in view of the European Health Data Space planned by the EU Commission to make medical data usable for research.