Biospecimens Play Important Role in Cancer Research
By Cathy Seiler, PhD
Program Manager, Biobank Core Facility
To cure cancer, researchers need to understand cancer. To understand cancer, researchers need to study cancer cells, and one of the best ways to study cancer cells is to use samples that come directly from cancer patients.
These samples, also called biospecimens, could be blood, cerebrospinal fluid, urine, or a piece of the tumor tissue that is removed during surgery. However, accessing these samples can be a challenge, which is why biobanks that store biospecimens are critical in cancer research and personalized medicine.
For the past 10 years, the Biobank Core Facility at Barrow Neurological Institute and St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center has been working with doctors, nurses, pathologists, and – most importantly – patients, to collect more than 60,000 cancer-related biospecimens and to distribute these to scientists worldwide with the goal of improving patient health through research.
How Does a Biobank Work?
A coordinator from the Biobank Core Facility talks to a patient who is about to have surgery at the hospital, for example, to remove a brain tumor. The coordinator explains why the Biobank wants to collect and store the patient’s tissue, describes what the risks are, and then asks for the patient’s permission to collect excess brain tumor tissue and blood. This process is called “informed consent.”
If consent is given, the surgeon takes a piece of tumor tissue smaller than a fingernail, puts it in a tube, and stores it in liquid nitrogen tank freezers until it is needed for research. No tissue will be collected for research if all of the tissue is needed for diagnosing the patient.
If the patient does not consent to donating excess tissue, it does not affect the patient’s diagnosis or care.
How Are Specimens Used?
Biospecimens are used by scientists in many different ways to help detect, understand, and treat cancer. If a scientist is interested in understanding the genetic changes that cause glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, the scientist might compare the DNA or RNA from glioblastoma tumor tissue to DNA from samples that do not have glioblastoma to try to identify what types of changes in the DNA cause glioblastoma.
Other uses of biospecimens may be to identify biomarkers that detect or predict the progression of the cancer, to find mutations that can be targeted by a drug, or to determine if a drug provided to a patient in a clinical trial actually gets into the tumor.
The Biobank Core Facility has provided more than 4,000 biospecimens to researchers to work on these and many other types of research projects.
World Cancer Day takes place each year on Feb. 4 to unite the world in the fight against cancer. This year, the Union for International Cancer Control launched a social media “Talking Hands” campaign to show what “we can” or “I can” do to support the fight against cancer. The Biobank Core Facility highlighted that “We can help cure cancer one biospecimen at a time.”