• Nea Alanen

The biobank is a self-enriching treasure chest and a cornerstone of clinical research

Finnish biobanks are professional, supervised and cost-effective research databases of clinical samples, whose cooperative FINBB, offers a one-stop-shop for Finnish researchers, a unique service on a global scale. Without biobanks, the research carried out in the E3 project would also have slowed down and become more difficult.

Biobank samples are divided into sample tubes. Photo: FINBB

At the beginning of the year, when it was decided that the biobank would be utilized in the E3 project, we immediately started to collect saliva and nasopharyngeal samples from those undergoing corona testing at Helsinki University Hospital during February-March. At that time, it was not even known with certainty in detail what or how to investigate.


Starting a clinical research is slow. Among other things, time-consuming research permits and ethical statements are needed.


"Thanks to biobank, we were able to start collecting samples already months before the research started," says Anne Pitkäranta, professor emerita and chairman of the board of Finnish Biobanks - FINBB. Pitkäranta is involved in the clinical research part of the E3 project as an expert.


In the spring, such a large number of samples needed for research was still easily available thanks to the prevalence of the disease, whereas now the situation is calmer and the same number of samples would not have been possible to collect.


"If the researchers would now say that they need saliva samples for the corona, it may be that there would not be so many positive patients at this stage, or at least in the proportion that there were last spring and winter," Pitkäranta confirms.


Anne Pitkäranta
Professor Emerita, retired Research Director of Helsinki University Hospital, chairman of the board of Finnish Biobanks cooperative (FINBB) Anne Pitkäranta.

The biobank also benefits from this. A completely new database was also established in the Helsinki University Hospital's biobank under the E3 research: samples of the nasopharynx and the front of the nose.


At E3, the Biobank will be used, among other things, for testing saliva samples, in the new just starting kindergarten research, and in a new children's hospital, where sample collection for follow-up research will begin.



Biobank is an open and public database


The special quality of biobank is that these samples can also be used by other researchers. Any researcher can also use the samples collected for E3 later, for example, as reference material in their own research.


"A patient once told me that she doesn't want to give her breast cancer sample to just one researcher, but to all of humanity. Even now, a unique research set of samples has been collected for E3, and it's wonderful that other researchers interested in the topic can also make use of it."


Biobanks were founded in Finland in the early 2010s. Gradually, they have started operating and accumulated their content. The operation was originally started from the joint biobanks of university hospitals and universities, and in 2017, Finnish Biobanks, FINBB, was established. The FINBB cooperative includes a total of eight biobanks.


FINBB has a national "one-stop-shop" FINGENIOUS, through which a researcher can locate a biospecimen in Finnish biobanks. In addition to the fact that hospitals and many national actors, such as blood services, have their own biobanks, private actors have also woken up to the importance of biobanks. A good example of this is Terveystalo, which has its own.



And how is the biosample collected in practice?


Biobanks are practically freezers. When a sample is taken from the patient with their permission, it is cut into, for example, four or six parts and put into sample tubes. If a sample is needed, the person ordering the sample takes the amount of sample he needs for his research.


The biobank cooperative's future dream would be for university hospitals to have their own robot that would pick up a bio sample from the bank automatically.


When the samples are used, the new data generated with their help is returned to the biobank and thus the biobank's data is further enriched with each study. In terms of research, the biobank is like a treasure chest of endless possibilities.


"Unfortunately, the service systems of all hospitals have been so difficult precisely because of the corona virus and the nurses' strike that the hospital staff does not seem to remember to offer the patient a biobank option when taking a sample. That's why biobanks should be brought out more in a positive light."

Preserved biobank samples. Kuva: FINBB

A responsible, cost-effective and excellent service speeds up research


In addition to academic research, the biobank is also used by the commercial pharmaceutical industry. Of course, it's also desirable that drugs are being researched and new drugs are being developed with the help of biobanks.


Biobank is a professional, safe, cost-effective and responsible service. Efforts are constantly being made to develop the operation more systematically. The biobank is a great research infrastructure that saves costs precisely because the researcher can use the samples again and again and the information from these studies returns to the bank and is always enriched with data from new studies.


"For example, if you wanted to study tongue cancer, which will appear in about 100 years, it would take many years to collect the samples and study the subject. I can't concentrate anymore. But if the samples had already been collected in the biobank, you would get a star idea in no time and tell FINBB that you need a hundred tongue cancer samples. The research would immediately get up to speed."


“The former research director's nightmare was that there could be 1,000 freezers cramming samples from researchers who weren't sure if the samples were OK. When it comes to information security, nothing is as controlled as a biobank."



Why are biobanks not utilized more?

The research world is aware of biobanks and their activities.


"Generally, many researchers think that 'If I collect these samples, I want to keep them in my own shoebox.' They are very selfish in a way. When I was working as a research director, I tried to talk to researchers that when collecting great sample sets, couldn't they be put in the biobank from the people who gave their consent. The researchers replied that it could not, as someone else could use them."


"Research is often funded by, for example, an academy, the state or a hospital, since the money used for the research is then not actually the researcher's own. So, in a way, there would be no reason to keep the samples to yourself."


The multidisciplinary major project E3 wants to be involved in leading the way in the utilization of biobanks for clinical research. Next year, for example, we can already do a comparative study on the sample battery taken this year. This kind of material is significant and unique when looking for ways to combat factors that paralyze society's functions caused by pandemics.



E3 Pandemic Response and Enterprise Solutions is a 2.5-year joint development project financed by Business Finland and the companies involved. The goal is to study the routes of the spread of viruses and how the various functions of society can be kept functional despite pandemics. The multidisciplinary project is jointly built by indoor air ecosystems CleverHealth Networkand the Indoor Air Quality ecosystem (IAQe). E3 involves a total of 22 Finnish companies and seven research institutes and is coordinated by Tamlink and Spinverse.



Read the article in Finnish here.

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