Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Global Biobanking Collaborations: Challenges and Opportunities

Blogging from the ISBER 2008 Annual Meeting

The ISBER annual meeting theme of collaboration rang true at the opening plenary session and echoed throughout Monday’s program. Cooperation and harmonization among biorepository resources could bolster the scientific toolkit for understanding disease cause and treatment response.

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), an esteemed scientist and luminary, provided the keynote address, outlining several pioneering projects that, with the use of biospecimens and collaboration, would inform our understanding of disease to unlock clues for developing cures. These projects include an international cancer genomics consortium that would collectively sequence 50 different tumor types, yielding molecular data to drive development of more targeted diagnostics, therapies, and prevention mechanisms. It also includes the 1000 Genome Project, an effort between the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Beijing Genomics Institute, and the NHGRI that will sequence genomes from 1000 people. With this detailed information, researchers can better understand at a molecular level why some people contract certain diseases and others don’t, and why some treatments cure disease and others won’t.

Monday’s program highlighted global collaborative efforts, including:
  • iBOL (International Barcode of Life) project involving 25 countries that aims to develop DNA barcodes that will allow for automated species identification and thus more active management of biodiversity;
  • Asian Network of Biological Resource Centers that serves as a collection of microbial cultures across China, Japan, Thailand, and Korea; and
  • Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) that intends to facilitate transnational collaboration, reduce fragmentation in the biobanking industry, and provide access of resources across academia and industry across the European continent.
Perhaps even more uplifting were discussions of not only collaboration, but also current and future activities to promote harmonization across biobanks. The lack of standards and practices across biorepositories is probably the most significant hindrance to realizing these resources' full contribution to the scientific process. An organization called P3G (Public Population Project in Genomics) is an international consortium whose members are public organizations undertaking large-scale genetic epidemiological studies and biobanks across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. P3G serves as a repository of information and tools and is developing tools such as their DataSHaPER (Data Schema and Harmonization Platform for Epidemiological Research). P3G notes that DataSHaPER is a comprehensive set of variables that should be collected by large epidemiological studies and biobanks for general-purpose biomedical research. The aim of the DataSHaPER is to provide a template to facilitate harmonization between biobanks and support the design of emerging ones. A future DataSHaPER will be developed for cancer as well.

The first two days of the meeting resonated with it's intended theme and demonstrated some impressive and ambitious collaborative efforts. The introduction of even early harmonization tools shows promise in unifying resources across institutions, countries, and continents. I look forward to tracking the progress of these efforts closely.

- Melissa Stevens, Director of Special Projects, FasterCures

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