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Researchers Propose ISBN-like Identifiers for Biobanks

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Writing on behalf of a collection of European research networks, a pair of scientists proposed in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association that the international research community develop an identification scheme for biobanks that would be similar to the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, code used in book publishing.
The authors note that biorepositories are “key tools in biological research, especially in genetics, genomics, and postgenomics research,” and particularly genome-wide association studies. Since these studies require large numbers of samples to ensure statistical rigor, researchers would benefit from data residing in other biobanks around the world. Currently, however, tracing these resources is “difficult because there are no standardized operational tools,” according to the JAMA commentary.
Francine Kauffmann and Anne Cambon-Thomsen, both of France’s Inserm, explain in the article that “the easiest way to trace the various uses of a given collection could be a common identifier attributed at the early stages of the collection,” but note that “no such structured identifier seems to exist for biobanks, whereas it is of common use in other domains.”
Kauffmann and Cambon-Thomsen propose that each biobank be assigned a unique, structured numerical code, similar to the ISBN, which comprises multi-digit “elements” that identify the language or geographical region, the publisher, and the specific edition of the publication.
In the case of biobanks, the elements of the code could identify the host of the biobank, its home country, and the individual collection, the authors write.
“Identification through ISBN for books is quite sophisticated and allows, for example, easy identification of a book, various volumes of a book, a book with several volumes, and the translation of a book, all of which represent various publication elements of one book,” Kauffmann and Cambon-Thomsen write. Using a similar approach for biobanks, “it would be easy to identify a biological collection, the various surveys in a longitudinal study, or an international program made of collections built up in various countries.”
In practice, they add, a unique identifier for biorepositories “would allow individuals to trace uses and results for various research partners or other interested parties; would provide a way to trace what is done with the information and the samples that individuals have provided for science; and would allow genetic data to be put in context with other dimensions of research to be considered for potential secondary users.”
The authors acknowledge that there are a number of practical issues associated with adopting an ISBN-like system that have yet to be addressed, including “who would maintain the system, who would provide funding for the system, and how uptake would be ensured.”
Several large-scale European research projects support the proposal and helped prepare the JAMA manuscript, including GA2LEN (Global Allergy and Asthma European Network) and PHOEBE (Promoting the Harmonization of Epidemiological Biobanks in Europe), which are funded under the European Union’s Sixth Framework Program; and GEN2PHEN (Genotype to Phenotype Databases: a Holistic Solution) and BBMRI (Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure'), which are funded through the EU’s Seventh Framework Program.

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