Advanced analyses that enable the simultaneous study of thousands of genes or proteins have substantially advanced biomedical research in recent years.
Importantly, they have led to the discovery of a number of biomarkers, molecules that can be used to personalise diagnosis, treatment and care. However, with new technologies come new challenges. The large scale of these technologies means that samples from many different patients need to be collected, handled and stored in exactly the same way. Even relatively small variations in the way in which samples are handled before they are analysed can lead to changes in the biological samples themselves. The amount of a protein, for example, may increase if a sample is not transported on ice. Ultimately such changes in the sample can greatly impact downstream research results and even lead to false results. To avoid this and ensure high sample quality, we are one of only a few biobanks to undertake in-house biospecimen research, running multiple projects to study the impact of these pre-analytical variations on the downstream lab results.
Quality control tools
One of our important research projects aims is to discover and validate markers for biospecimen quality control (QC). These QC markers are molecules (DNA, RNA, proteins, metabolites) that are sensitive to the way samples are collected, processed and stored, allowing researchers to assess these variables. QC markers are especially important for biobanks, which need to ensure that their samples are fit-for-purpose, meaning that they have a level of quality suitable for the specific type of analysis they are intended for. Indeed, the parameters that need to be controlled during processing depend strongly on the type of downstream analysis and the type of sample.
Two of our flagship projects focus on the best ways to handle and process blood samples. The first project analyses how different anti-coagulants, temperatures and time delays before the sample is processed in the laboratory affect the activity of genes in white blood cells. Preliminary results showed that the activity of 4 genes was sensitive to these variations, making them candidate QC markers. For the second project, the impact of these variations on metabolites in blood plasma was analysed. This research project showed that, for this type of analysis, blood should be processed within 3 hours after collection in EDTA tubes to avoid any detrimental effect on the end results. Specific cytokines – small proteins – have been identified as valuable QC markers for either plasma or serum. These have also been validated in a large collaboration with members of the global biobanking organisation ISBER.
Most of our biospecimen research projects are collaborations with national or international partners, including hospitals, research institutes, universities and biotechnology companies. We have teamed up with a branch of the prestigious US National Cancer Institute (NCI) to assess the impact of pre-analytical variations on the quality of different cancer tissues used for diagnosis and research. In the context of this collaboration, we have identified a couple of QC markers for tissue samples. IBBL has also actively participated and contributed to the Best Practice Protocols that are currently being prepared by the NCI and that will be published in the near future.
All of these projects underline the importance of tightly controlling every step a sample goes through, from the patient to the biobank, to the researcher. By implementing the conclusions drawn from biospecimen research into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), we can ensure all samples are of high quality and suitable for their intended research purpose.