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Finnish Biobank Cooperative Launches Service to Make Samples, Data Available to Researchers

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NEW YORK – The Finnish Biobank Cooperative has launched a new service that will allow researchers to search through the country's extensive biobank resources, obtain access to genomic and health data, and, potentially, recall participants for follow-on studies.

Using the free service, called Fingenious, researchers will be able to access genomic data generated by the country's FinnGen project, which aims to genotype 500,000 Finns by 2023.

The data, while generated through the FinnGen project, is actually held by Finland's biobanks, which together maintain the Finnish Biobank Cooperative (FINBB). Participant biobanks include the national THL Biobank, as well as multiple hospital biobanks, such as the Auria Biobank, the Helsinki Biobank, the Biobank of Eastern Finland, the Biobank of Central Finland, the Biobank Borealis of Northern Finland, and Finnish Clinical Biobank in Tampere.

"The main idea of FINBB is to be a one-stop shop for access to Finnish biobank samples and biodata," said FINBB CEO Marco Hautalahti. "Instead of going biobank by biobank, they can enter the Finnish system via FINBB."

According to Hautalahti, FINBB worked together with the IT teams of the various Finnish biobanks, as well as with an external IT partner, Helsinki-based Wunderdog, to devise the Fingenious digital service.

"This is the first time that all of our biobanks have been covered by one service," said Hautalahti. "This may be among the first in Europe to provide a one-stop shop or window, making things smoother and faster for the researchers," he said.

The Fingenious Catalogue provides users with an overview of the content of various biorepositories. It includes a number of search tools. One, the Fingenious Feasibility tool, enables researchers to reach all of the biobanks with a single feasibility request. The Fingenious Access tool similarly allows users to make an access request to all biobanks simultaneously. The progress of this application can be monitored in real time using the service, and a cost estimate of the project is provided during the feasibility and access request processes, according to FINBB.

There are various reasons for streamlining access, Hautalahti said. One is to benefit researchers in general, but another is to advance Finland's competitiveness as a research environment. Industry has recognized the potential of tapping into the country's resources before. FinnGen's pharmaceutical partners include Abbvie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celgene, Genentech, Merck, and Pfizer, for example.

Initial users are already diverse and include researchers from across Europe, as well as firms from pharma hotspots like Geneva and Boston. "This is not just for Finnish researchers, this is of course for international collaborations," said Hautalahti. "We serve them no matter if they are coming from academia or industry."

"Fingenious connects different stakeholders," he added. "It reminds one of the famous Nokia slogans from the Nineties: Connecting People."

While the initial version of Fingenious is free, there is a second-generation tool in development that might not be. "The current business model is that we return value back to the hospitals and patients, and also back to the universities conducting research," said Hautalahti. The second-generation tool will be more sophisticated and might have a different, fee-based model.

"You will be able to recall data and samples, but also the patients," Hautalahti said. "That is very unique. Because of our laws and regulations, you will be able to find study participants." The retrieval of such information will be supported by the Finnish Genome Act, which has already been adopted by the country's parliament and will come into force on Jan. 1, 2020.

Hautalahti declined further comment on the second version of the tool, as it is in development.

He noted, however, that FinnGen continues to be an engine for generating genomic data held by the country' biobanks. The project has relied on Thermo Fisher Scientific's Axiom array platform to genotype participants.

All together, the data holdings accessible via Fingenious include roughly 5 million data points. Hautalahti said that "tens of thousands" of samples have already been genotyped by FinnGen and that the number is increasing every six months.

"The biggest opportunity [for researchers] is the returned genomic data from FinnGen to different biobanks," said Hautalahti. "When the data is in the biobanks, you can have new studies, try totally different approaches, and it is available to all researchers from academia and from industry."

A 'strong resource'

It is unclear if Finland is the first country to offer such a tool, but it is certainly among the first in Europe. Denmark in June introduced the Danish Biobank Register, which combines data from all biobanks participating in the country's Danish National Biobank initiative and gives researchers online access to 25.3 million samples from 5.7 million Danes. The register was created in part with support from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Henrik Ullum, a professor of clinical immunology at the Institute for Clinical Medicine at the University of Copenhagen, said in an email that the Fingenious service provides researchers with a "strong resource." He said the value of such registries is the possibilty to design new studies on the basis of the available date.

Another biobank resource available in Europe is a tool supported by BBMRI-ERIC, the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure based in Graz, Austria. Called the BBMRI-ERIC directory, the tool enables users to search for samples across more than 600 biobanks in the region.

"There are more initiatives like this, but I think this one [Fingenious] covers quite a lot of information on a national level," said Erik Steinfelder, the director general of BBMRI-ERIC. "These tools are very helpful to increase the visibility of the various biobanks in a certain country and help making connections with potential users," he said via email, adding that similar tools are available in Germany and in the UK.

"The more tools like this [exist], the easier it should be for the researchers to find the right samples that can help them achieve their goals," Steinfelder said, and by giving researchers easier access, they don't "have to build their own collections and reinvent the wheel."

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