The big chill: Stanford reinvents biobanking

Janine Sung and Rebecca Giessler of the Stanford Biobank

The future of biobanking is now, as the Stanford Biobank begins rolling out new resources that will better protect the integrity of biological samples and unlock their potential for biomarker discovery. This state-of-the-art biobank management solution is capable of reliably tracking every biological sample collected in every study at Stanford and linking each with associated health records and molecular data. All information related to a given sample can be securely accessed by individual labs and shared with collaborators.

At the start of this project, Rohit Gupta, the biobank’s executive director, recognized that many researchers have troves of unused biospecimens that could be repurposed for biomarker discovery and technology development if there was an easy way to facilitate sharing with other researchers.

To that end, Gupta’s team developed a first-of-its-kind biobank web portal, called BioCatalyst, a convenient, secure mechanism to facilitate sample and data tracking and sharing. This software solution electronically tracks a sample’s deidentified description and location, along with affiliated data and electronic health records stored in the university’s REDCap and EPIC information systems. In the second phase of this project, launching in 2020, BioCatalyst will provide researchers with integrated tools for managing, analyzing and visualizing molecular/omics data.

The Stanford Biobank also provides faculty with on-site and off-site sample inventory support and a consulting firm that can help labs migrate samples to the new tracking system. An off-site “freezer “farm,” with 24/7 monitoring and rapid distribution of samples back and forth to Stanford, is also available. This approach not only lessens the risks of sample destruction due to earthquakes, power outages and fires, but it frees up expensive lab space to house more researchers and equipment.

“At this time, I believe we have one of the most advanced biobanking system of any academic medical center in the country,” said Gupta.

Gupta emphasizes that the most important aspect of this new federation of biobanks is the potential for researchers worldwide to share disease and specimen data, a capability that he believes will reduce the costs of acquiring human samples and speed up research. (Read these articles on how this system is being used for storing and sharing specimens for a rare genetic disease and tumor tissue.) To promote the transition to this new system, the Dean’s office has agreed to provide financial incentives to labs and subsidize some service costs.

In the past, one of the obstacles to sharing specimens was in tracking patient permission to use their samples or data in future studies. To get around this challenge, Gupta is collaborating with multiple departments to launch an electronic consent platform with an explanatory video and online consent form that patients can opt in at the time of sample collection.

Today, the Stanford Bank houses samples and data for almost 200 projects, including those for large flu and chronic fatigue studies, a biorepository for the rare NGLY1 deficiency genetic defect, and patient data for adult and pediatric transplantation group.

Going forward, Gupta’s team is streamlining processes and creating an infrastructure for subsidized cost recovery of these services through grants and philanthropy. He’s also working on gaining accredidation as a College of American Pathologist (CAP) accredited biobank.

Researchers interested in using the Stanford Biobank should contact