Biobanks: a treasure for scientists
For researchers, biobanks are true mines of information. As they are able to link biological samples with the donors’ medical data, it is possible to systematically search for the causes of certain diseases. To date, several German biobanks have been established, which are now being used above all for the storage and analysis of DNA samples. Now, a further project has been initiated: a blood donor biobank. Here, the systematic investigation of proteins and metabolites is in the spotlight. The key advantage of the blood donor biobank is that serial samples from individual donors will be available, which researchers can use to undertake progression studies. This would allow an analysis of the donor’s sample before, during and after the outbreak of an illness.
Biobanks - an introduction
For researchers, Biobanks are a great opportunity to move systematically and on a large-scale towards the causes of diseases. Ultimately, several thousand patients with an illness are usually needed in order to achieve representative conclusions. In biobanks, data from biological samples such as tissue, blood or prepared DNA is linked with medical data from the respective donors. Because data from as large a number of individuals as possible is gathered, scientists can systematically filter patterns which are typical for an illness. By comparing ill with healthy patients, it is then possible to purposefully search for genetic characteristics associated with a specific disease.
At present, a worldwide search for such biomarkers is under way - particularly for widespread diseases such as cancer, diabetes or heart diseases. This is why experts regard the biomarker research as a billion-dollar market. While most biobanks concentrate on genetic material, others focus on genetic products such as proteins or metabolites. These latter two supply a more direct view of the donor’s actual state of health, as it is not the possible genetic composition, but the genetic products that have already been produced that are analyzed.
The two largest DNA Biobanks in Germany (KORAgen and Popgen) were developed within the National Genome Research Network (NGFN). As they are promoted with public funds, they must commit and adhere to strict confidentiality regulations, which were compiled by experts and adapted to the requirements of the respective states of the Federal Republic of Germany. This also applies to the new project from the Bavarian Red Cross, which is focusing on samples from the blood bank service, in an attempt to make it available for scientific research. This development has required much preparation, as matters of confidentiality and legality, as well as the potential for an abuse of the system, have had to be clarified and dealt with appropriately.
Compared to other countries, the German projects are of a relatively modest scale. In Great Britain, for example, biobanks are being planned on a much larger scale, in which the recruitment of a large part of the population is envisioned. "We are in a good position with our data, but other countries will soon overtake us", predicts German biobank expert Erich Wichmann from the GSF Research Center for Environment and Health. At present, he can see no similarly large project, which will build on, or unite, existing capacity in Germany.