Banking biology

Next-generation biobanking bridges the gap between research and patients

There’s a new bank at Stanford that scientists are using to store some of their most coveted resources — and it has nothing to do with money. This is a biobank, a repository of biological research specimens, such as tissue, saliva, blood and stool.

The facility holds data from nearly 200 research projects, all of which harness biological samples to probe the molecular roots of disease, understand disease progression or develop treatments.

Biobanks are not new, but in 2017 Stanford revamped its approach, adding new on- and off-campus freezer storage, and streamlined sample tracking systems that capture clinical data annotations in real time. Another addition: a secure portal allowing scientists to share and access data from different samples and freely apply it to their research. For now, only Stanford scientists can access the samples and data, which are stripped of personal patient information to protect privacy.

It’s an unconventional approach for academic medical organizations, said Rohit Gupta, who co-founded the biobank with Mark Cullen, MD, professor of medicine, biomedical data science and health research policy.

Aiding research

“The new biobank is right at the crossroads of patient care and molecular data,” said Gupta, who has since begun serving as chief biobank officer at UC San Francisco. “The goal is to bridge the gap between clinical care and research.”

The Stanford biobank allowed Anne Chang, MD, associate professor of dermatology, to pursue a new avenue of investigation. She runs the high-risk skin cancer clinic, and in her work, she takes samples of patients’ skin to monitor their conditions. But she wanted to get a more precise sample analysis by sussing out the molecular details of single cells.

“With many of those skin cancer biopsies just sitting around, there was a big missed opportunity for a deeper understanding,” she said.

Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD, had co-developed a tool that enabled her research with graduate student Kathryn Yost in the lab of Howard Chang, MD, PhD, professor of cancer genomics and of genetics. Anne Chang and Satpathy wanted to apply the technology to her samples, but neither had labs and personnel to conduct that work.

Valuable resource

“It wasn’t feasible for one lab to get the samples from the clinic and process them day and night as patients come in — especially in a way that enables smooth downstream analysis,” said Satpathy, who is now an assistant professor of pathology at Stanford.

Biobank staff helped with that, making possible the examination of hundreds of samples to reveal more about how immune cells infiltrate skin cancer tumors and respond during immune-based treatments.

Dozens of other scientists entrust the facility with the seeds of their research. For example, Jennifer Frankovich, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, uses blood samples to understand pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndromes, which can change the personality and behavior of a child within days.

“It’s almost like you’re working with another academic lab,” said Satpathy. “It’s that type of true collaboration, with both parties equally invested, and that’s what makes this biobank such a valuable resource.”