What Is A Biobank?

A biobank (“bank of life”) is a place – typically an ultralow temperature freezer – that stores blood and other human tissue samples donated by patients for research in cancer or other serious diseases. It is maintained by specialist personnel, and data is coded for the patient’s privacy and confidentiality, and recorded in a database. Clinical data, including treatment and follow-up, may be linked subsequently.
The patient’s cancer operation specimen – cancer and surrounding normal tissue – is examined by a Histopathologist. The pathological diagnosis and full pathological assessment of the tumour’s aggressiveness and extent determine the patient’s further treatment. Providing the patient has consented, small fragments of cancer and normal tissue, surplus to pathology requirements, may be coded, frozen and stored in the biobank. Samples are released for ethical, scientifically approved research on how cancers develop, grow, spread and respond to treatment.

The largest potential human tissue biobanks consist of diagnostic pathology specimens stored in hospital Histopathology departments. Pathology specimens are fixed in formalin, and embedded in paraffin blocks (FFPE tissue). FFPE tissue samples can be used for research, with patient consent or Ethics Committee approval. Although RNA, genes and proteins are best preserved in frozen samples, FFPE samples are very valuable to researchers, and are routinely used to determine an individual patient’s suitability for certain types of treatment e.g. Herceptin in breast cancer. Hospital biobanks are ideally located in Histopathology, to manage, store and release frozen and FFPE samples to researchers (see For Researchers).

Most biobanked samples are used in large research studies by research groups in universities or hospitals, and in biopharmaceutical companies developing new tests and more effective cancer treatments. However, individual patients with recurrent cancer might have biopsy samples biobanked to evaluate progression of their disease and guide clinical decision-making.