What is a biobank?
A biobank is a place (typically a freezer) where blood or cancer tissue, donated by patients, is stored until the samples are used by researchers in approved research projects.
How does a tissue sample help in the fight against cancer?
The pathological diagnosis of cancer type is based on microscopic appearance, and patients whose cancer type, extent of spread and aggressiveness are similar receive the same post-operative treatment. However, we now know that two patient’s cancers may look the same, but their cancer genes and proteins may be different, causing a difference in response to treatment and prognosis.
This is where biobanking comes in. In frozen tissue samples the cancer cells’ genes (and the proteins they code for) are preserved. Researchers can therefore examine the tissue to learn more about how individual cancers grow and spread. Cancer cells have internal signaling pathways, and, at intervals along the pathways, protein stations, a bit like DART stations. Just as each train responds to signals between stations, the cell responds to signals to divide and produce more cancer cells, or to die or carry out other functions. If we can identify the protein stations in a particular cancer, we might be able to develop a new drug to block the signal to one or more stations, thus stopping cancer growth. Herceptin is an example of a new drug that blocks the growth of aggressive breast cancer in this way, and has improved the prognosis for many thousands of women.
What do researchers do with the samples?
Researchers may use tissue to investigate, for example, how and why cancers grow and spread, or to better understand why some cancers occur spontaneously while others occur in families e.g breast cancer. Cancer tissue (and blood) are essential for this research, and this is why tissue samples donated by cancer patients are so critical. Validating and translating basic research findings is leading to new tests and treatments for established cancers. However, the ultimate goal is to discover novel biomarkers or components of tissue which will identify people at risk of developing cancer, so they can be monitored more carefully. In the years to come, biobanked samples may eventually help prevent the development and growth of cancer.