The importance of Biorepositories

Biorepositories (and Biobanks)

A biorepository is a storage facility for biological materials that includes animal and human tissue samples. A biobank is similar but it is not the same thing as a biorepository. A bio bank is a collection of similar types of samples, that are grouped together based on population, disease type etc. A biobank collects, stores, and processes bio specimens for use in both research and clinical studies. There are countless parties involved in the successful operation of a biorepository like, Geneticist Inc.. a strong support system is required for one to function, these can include, but are not limited to, patients, regulators, investors, governments, healthcare workers etc.

A biobank functions as a biorepository that gathers, processes, stores, and provides specimens and data that is used in research and clinical studies. The biobanking field has changed greatly over the last three decades starting with a small university-based repository developed for the needs of particular projects. It then gradually evolved to include institutional repositories, government repositories, commercial repositories, population biobanks, and virtual biobanks. The data gathered provides information that demonstrates participant or patient phenotype which extends in both genetics and proteomics. Population-wide biobanks have been developed in many countries globally to collect, analyze, and store information that represents samples of their population source. As for virtual biobanks, they function using a special software or web portals that help to connect biobanks and investigators globally.

Biobanking: Responsibilities and Benefits

Biobanking is a process where tissues (both plants and animal) and bodily fluids are collected as samples for the purpose of research to improve the understanding of disease and health. Information that may affect the sample such as height, weight, lifestyle, and family history will also be recorded to provide some background information for the samples. The collected samples can be kept indefinitely or over a period of several years depending on the type of research. Researchers will then track the health of study participants by observing and recording their past, present, and future medical records if they have consent. There are specific biobank projects that specialize in specific conditions. While this may be the case, both healthy volunteers and individuals with the condition will be required for the participation of the study. Samples that are collected for a specific research can also be kept for future use in other research. In genetic conditions, family members of participants can also be recruited to compare their medical history to others who also suffer from the same condition.

Informed Consent

Before participants agree to participate in biobanking, they are usually informed in writing about what to expect and should understand that they can always refuse to be involved further if they feel uncomfortable at some point during the research. The data, information, and samples gathered can be shared with other scientists and researchers such as those in universities, private institutes, or government institutes in other parts of the world. However, it is made clear that samples collected cannot be sold for profit. The sharing of information allows research to be conducted on a larger scale leading to a better understanding of health, advancements, and faster development of new treatments.

Legal and ethical issues

Despite government and institutional involvement in biobanks there has been a lot of legal and ethical gray area attributed to bio banking. External regulatory pressure has led the industry to take much greater care in the execution of their collection and storage. One of the biggest issues that faces the industry, despite laws varying from country to country, is that donors are not getting financially rewarded even though their body parts are being sold for thousands of dollars.

History of Biobanks

Biobanks have been around in one form or another for over a century. Back then they were shells of what they have become today. Similar to today’s biobanks they too were hosted at universities where scientists tend to conjugate. They were small and developed with specific research and studies in mind. Interestingly enough, mentions of histology have been found in literature as early as 1817. As time has passed and as the importance of biobanks has become more widely understood and appreciated they have grown to become much larger. Eventually governments and institutions alike have become involved and we now even have population wide biobanks.

Advancement of Biorepositories

In the field of biorepository, it has evolved according to the changing needs of investigators and studies that utilize specimen banking while adhering to regulatory and related guidelines and pressures. The changing environment can be attributed to fields such as genomics, proteomics, and personalized medicine that increases the precision of science. It has increased the demand for high-quality specimens that are reliable, accurate, and has standardized laboratory and clinical data. This is why the process of collection, storage, tracking, and shipment are vital to the outcome of studies. Regulatory requirements such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Institutional Review Board (IRB)have been developed to address consent, ethical, and legal issues.

Evolution of the Biobank and its Diverse Activities

In the United States, specimens have been collected and stored for more than a century. Banks have expanded their activities from small operations based on small studies to become a much more complex enterprise. Advances such as procedure automation and computerization have transformed the management of these biobanks. Specimens can now be logged onto a computerized database. Biobanks with sufficient funding can now invest in robotics to accelerate processing and sampling. The internet has enabled communication with clients and companies now exist to support biobanks in terms of inventory tracking, consent documentation, and handling of laboratory and clinical data. Robotic devices can handle specimen processing and national biorepositories have made it possible to study large populations throughout the entire lifespan.

For example:

  1. UK Biobank – Created after 10 years of planning aiming to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of life-threatening illnesses. They have reported a recruitment of half a million participants between the ages of 40 to 69 during 2006 to 2010.

  2. The University of California, San Francisco AIDS Specimen Bank (ASB) – Started in 1982 as a response to the challenges of AIDS epidemic.

  3. National Cancer Institute announced the establishment of US National Cancer Human Biobank (caHUB) – Created due to concerning needs for human biospecimens and aims to improve and modernize the field of biobanking through standard operating procedures and standards.

  4. Virtual biobank - Created as an electronic database that contains information of biological specimens regardless where the specimens are stored. There is one in University College London Virtual Biobank that collects information of existing and new biospecimens. It will eventually become a data repository for all health science centers. Its founders are currently attempting to develop a software system that houses sample and phenotype data, so all researchers can view information on all collections.

Virtual biobanks are the future of bio banking. Technological advances in AI software and robotics is changing the way we manage and operate biobanks. The most modern of biobanks are using computerized databases of specimens accessible by a google-like search engine. Software companies have developed tracking, processing and documentation systems specific to the bio banking business. The future of bio banking looks very bright, so long that standard operating procedures are abided by.



1)     Biobanking. Healthtalk. Accessed 5/30/2018.

2)     De Souza YG, Greenspan JS. Biobanking past, present, future: responsibilities and benefits. AIDS. 2013; 27(3): 303-312.