ACBI Biobanking Seminar

The Association of Clinical Biochemists in Ireland (ACBI) organised a Biobanking Seminar and Debate last Thursday 11th January at the Mater University Hospital. It was a busy day with 10 speakers and over 100 attendees registered. There were speakers representing biobanks, funding bodies, researchers and industry as well as a panel discussion at the end. A multitude of topics came up ranging from specific challenges for Ireland, GDPR, the upcoming ISO standard, BBMRI and population genomics.

This is a summary of what was covered on the day, it is by no means comprehensive as so much was covered. However it should give you a good idea of what was a very interesting, energizing and thought-provoking day.

To start the day, Dr Graham Lee provided the welcome address. He is the president of the ACBI and noted that Ireland is well placed gather clinical data, handle samples and implement international standards. The first speaker was Dr Suzanne Bracken from Clinical Research Development Ireland (CRDI), who is also Chair of the Irish Mirror Committee for ISO TC 276 Biotechnology. Suzanne went through the landscape of biobanking in Ireland and history of some of the standards and surveys that have been published. From her most recent survey of 43 active Clinical Research Facilities, 5 responded to say they had no biobank, while the biobank numbers from the other CRFs ranged from 1-22. The main challenges she outlined for Ireland are:
  • No central register;
  • Multi-submission ethics;
  • Sustainable funding;
  • Training for researchers;
  • No national strategy;
  • Transparent engagement with Industry needed.
Next up was Dr Emma Snapes who went through her fantastic biobanking facility in the INFANT centre as well as the work she has been doing on the ISO biobanking standard. The INFANT biobank has just opened a new long term storage area and they now have 40 freezers with capacity for 2-4M aliquots. The ISO standard development has been a long and winding road with publication later in 2018 (or maybe 2019).

The Northern Ireland Biobank was represented by Dr Claire Lewis. She gave a history of the biobank from initial approval to when the first cancer sample was collected four years later. The sources of funding and resources come from Public Health Agencies, the Belfast Trust, charities and Queens University. They spend 60% of their time on bespoke, specific collections as well as their main historical collections. They have streamlined their online ethics approval process, such that a decision can be given in 2 weeks from application.

After a short coffee break, Dr Robert Hewitt gave an overview of his new(ish) role in Trans-Hit Biomarkers Inc as well as his previous work in biobanking. Robert is best known for his involvement in the ISBER society and helping to setup and run the ESBB society on the back of this. Trans-Hit specialize in human tissue procurement for researchers, mainly cancer based. Robert was able to give an outline of what a biobank needs to prepare in order to work with a broker like Trans-Hit.

There followed a presentation on the East London Genes and Health Project by Beverley MacLaughlin. This was a very interesting insight into a cohort study that addresses the health needs of the large Pakistani and Bangladeshi population based in London. There were lots of examples of insights that Beverley had come across during the initiation of this project. In particular, engaging faith leaders, the use of the term bioresource instead of biobank and gene instead of DNA.

Before lunch, Prof Michaela Higgins gave an Oncologists perspective on Irish biobanking. As well as addressing the patient's altruistic participation, she also mentioned clinical trials in general in Ireland. About 5% of cancer patients currently participate in clinical trials, with the national cancer strategy targeting 10%.

After a break for sustenance, the venue moved to a different lecture hall. Prof Maria Fitzgibbon was next to present. She was instrumental in organizing the event and put together an excellent programme. Maria spoke about the Irish SADS collection, as well as highlighting the general move in life sciences towards liquid biopsies, compared to biobanking that has historically put a lot of emphasis on tissue collection.

Dr Brona Murphy then introduced the audience to the RCSI Brain Tumour Biobank. This is a relatively new project, with the first sample collected in April 2017 and 47 by the end of the year. It was good to hear about the H2020 consortium grant for €3.9M that the biobank is involved in to train 15 brain cancer researchers across Europe over the next 3 years.

Irish funding and policy making was presented by Dr Catriona Creely from the Health Research Board (HRB). Catriona outlined a step wise approach to supporting the development of biobanking in Ireland. The long-term goal is for mandatory accreditation but there is an appreciation that this will take time, require investment and that existing collections should not be left behind. In particular, it was pertinent to hear that the HRB intend to release two biobanking calls this year: establishing an Irish Biobanking Node in preparation to join BBMRI and an initiative to support institutions to reach standards accreditation.

The last speaker of the day was Dr Sean Ennis from Genomics Medicine Ireland. This is an ambitious and well-financed initiative to create a population wide, disease specific genomic database. There are 3 strategic areas: new therapeutics, molecular diagnostic targets and preventative medicine. The 5 year target is to have 200,000 people sequenced across 20 disease areas. In 10 years the target is 10% of the population and 50 disease areas.

To end the day there was a panel and audience discussion on the topics covered. Unfortunately, Dr Asim Sheikh could not give his planned talk on GDPR as that topic generated quite a few questions. It was noted that the BBMRI code of conduct for research, which is meant to address health research within GDPR, is due to be released for public comment at the end of January. The main challenges for Ireland weren't solved on the day, but there was definitely a feeling of momentum in the move that 2018 will start to address some of these topics in a meaningful way.

If you have any questions about the day, don't hesitate to contact us and we will try and help you out.

Dr Brackenjpg