By Emily Hubbard
For precision medicine to realize its potential, research must become ultraefficient. We have the computing power today to quickly discover new disease biomarkers and insights, but we still need enormous volumes of patient population data to analyze. And we need that new data faster.
Whether it comes from a nasopharyngeal swab, blood draw, spinal tap, or tumor remnant, the most important portion of this data comes directly from human biospecimens. They are a key link in the chain from traditional medicine to the promise of new therapies tailored to precise biological signatures.
In addition to volume of specimen data, we need specificity. Precision medicine necessitates precision research, which necessitates getting highly specific biospecimens to researchers on demand, in alignment with their demand. Researchers shouldn’t have to adjust their research to whatever specimens are available; supply needs to fit the research.
In the past, a researcher may have been fine studying tumor tissue from lung cancer patients, but now she may want to study non-small cell lung cancer patients with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations who have been on checkpoint inhibitors and have not responded to the therapy – significantly complicating the acquisition challenge.
SPECIMENS GETTING STALE
To make this happen, biobanks need to offer the same kind of choice that consumer companies do, constantly adapting to the changing requirements of bioscience researchers. Unfortunately, biobanks aren’t there yet. For decades, biobanks have compiled and stored large volumes of human biospecimens in hopes of generally satisfying a pipeline of medical research for years to come. It was nearly impossible for biobanks to scale the flow of specific specimens into the hands of researchers as intended. Build it and they will come has barely worked.
Even eight years ago, when specimen demands were far less specific, four out of five researchers in a National Cancer Institute study reported limiting the scope of their work because of the difficulties with procuring specimens in sufficient quantity and quality.
If getting more specific samples faster isn’t challenging enough, precision research also calls for increasingly robust data about each sample – patient age, gender, race, ethnicity, geography, medical conditions, medications, etc. Had anyone bothered to tell the biobank this before the specimens were collected and put into storage? No, so detailed data was rarely captured.
Over time, a pattern among biobanks emerged, resulting in mass collections of specimens that lingered unused. In our survey of U.S. biobanks, we discovered that approximately 42 percent of biobanked specimens are at least five years old. This is not how medical research should work today.
DATA-DRIVEN, JUST-IN-TIME MODELS ARE NEEDED
With this in mind, biobanking needs to become far more agile, first finding a way to intelligently detect the research community’s need for particular biospecimens from particular patients and, secondly, to collect and deliver on demand the exact specimens and data needed to advance precision research projects.
The process needs to be data-driven, systematically asking, “What specimens do precision researchers need?” Biobanks, often associated with hospitals, can then create new specimen-collection arrangements with the departments that handle the most in-demand samples and patients. Other biobanks and third parties can join and expand specimen collection efforts to address shifting demand.
It’s admittedly a buzzword, but biobanks also need to adapt a “just-in-time” mindset, procuring increasingly precise, fresh, “hot-off-the-press” specimens with full, custom data sets. It’s complex and intricate, but doable. The alternative is leaving half of their researchers empty-handed.
Yes, biobanks need to be far more active, nimble players in the game, with hybrid approaches that marry the availability of demand-driven, banked and prospectively collected samples while also staying up to date on resources to help them move existing inventory. This may help generate revenue needed to fund new plans and processes. If they don’t, the precision research that drives precision medicine is more likely to fall far short of its potential.
EMILY HUBBARD leads the Site Development and Management Team at iSpecimen, increasing specimen access from patient populations that researchers require for their work.