Under the motto "Biobanking in challenging times", the 11th National Biobank Symposium is taking place in Berlin from 25 to 26 May, bringing together 230 experts. In her opening speech, conference president PD Dr Sara Nußbeck from the Central Biobank of the University Medical Centre Göttingen (UMG) addressed the challenges and uncertainties biobanks are currently facing in light of the ongoing crises. Overcoming these challenges requires innovative solutions and a sustainable strategy. "As biobanks, we have to address the question of how we can make our activities more efficient and save resources without compromising the quality of biobanking," said Nußbeck. "At the same time, it is important that we prepare ourselves and are ready to connect with new technologies, artificial intelligence and big data approaches." The Biobank Symposium is the largest national meeting in the field of biobanking. It is jointly organised by the German Biobank Network (GBN) and the TMF – Technology, Methods, and Infrastructure for Networked Medical Research.
Evacuation from Ukraine
Rising energy prices and looming supply shortages, the climate crisis and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic pose new challenges for biobanks. The symposium provides an opportunity for participants to discuss different approaches. "Thanks to strong networking and their commitment to standardisation, biobanks can face these challenges together and also promote the establishment of international partnerships," says Nußbeck. Dr. Svetlana Gramatiuk, head of the Ukraine Association of Biobanks, reported at the symposium that it had been possible to evacuate biosamples of a biobank in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to Austria. German biobanks have also received biospecimens from Ukraine in a very unbureaucratic way.
Towards a more sustainable biobanking
The uncertain situation, the associated price increases and supply bottlenecks are having a noticeable impact on the work of biobanks in Germany. Especially when samples are stored in -80°C ultra-low temperature freezers, operating costs have risen significantly. A team from the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Augsburg took part in the "Freezer Challenge" of the US initiative "My Green Lab" not only to save costs, but also to run their laboratory in a more climate-friendly way. With success – out of 1,200 participating labs from all over the world, they won in the "Academic/Large Size Lab" category. "We have implemented a number of measures to significantly reduce our energy consumption. For example, we now store certain samples at higher temperatures," says Dr. Claudia Hülpüsch, Head of the Microbiome Department. "We also maintain our refrigeration systems very thoroughly and regularly. GBN director Prof. Dr. Michael Hummel adds: "It is also important to make efficient use of existing storage capacity. This is one reason for using professional biobanks, as they usually have sample management systems that monitor this. In addition, biobanks can ensure that other research projects have access to existing samples, thus also making the use of samples more sustainable".
In the future, a sustainable form of sample use will be achieved by bringing together biosamples and patient data from healthcare and making them available for research via a portal. The Medical Informatics Initiative's (MII) collaborative project ABIDE_MI, which has been running since 2021, has developed a technical solution that links data from the MII's data integration centres with samples from the German Biobank Alliance (GBA). Since the opening of the Research Data Portal for Health (Forschungsdatenportal für Gesundheit, FDPG) in May 2023, researchers have been able to submit feasibility requests for data and samples. "ABIDE_MI has contributed to the integration of processes and infrastructures between biobanks and the MII as a data infrastructure. This is an important step in connecting biobanks to the planned health data infrastructures in the course of digitalising health research," explains Sebastian C. Semler, Managing Director of TMF. "This is of great importance, especially with a view to the European Health Data Space". Prof. Dr. Jens Habermann, Director General of the European infrastructure BBMRI-ERIC, adds: "German biobanks already have an excellent international visibility through the German Biobank Node. ABIDE_MI now enables them to play an important role in data-oriented European research initiatives and in the European Health Data Space".
Looking to the future: biobanks and AI
Prof. Dr. Torsten Haferlach emphasised the importance of well-characterised samples linked to comprehensive genetic and molecular information from diagnostics accessible in biobanks. Modern laboratory medicine should be digitalised and offer interfaces for linking to different devices and storage media. "In the future, comprehensively characterised biobanks in combination with algorithms and artificial intelligence will offer great potential for disease research and the development of new drugs," says Haferlach. In this context, a complete digital networking of different platforms is crucial for the optimal use of biobanks, he added.
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