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Model organisms can only take you so far. As cancer researchers know all too well, the heavy lifting has to be done with human cells — and that's one of the most serious challenges facing the field today. It has always been difficult for scientists to get their hands on enough samples for even small-scale research projects. And when there are samples to be had, it's anybody's guess whether they are of high enough quality to meet scientists' research standards. According to researchers in the field, access and quality are the two critical areas where current biobanks fall down.

Access

It's tricky just to get samples in the first place — and that's true for biobanks as much as for the average researcher. Laws governing sample collection and patient consent vary from country to country, making it a complex matter to reach across national boundaries to collect samples. And the issue of disease prevalence makes locating samples for certain conditions virtually impossible.

In addition, once the samples actually get into banks, "there's a lot of hoarding," says Carolyn Compton, director of the Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research at the National Cancer Institute. The time and cost of assembling and maintaining these repositories is a problem. "They're very labor-intensive and expensive to amass," Compton says. "They don't want to give open access."

This is not a new situation. Robert Penny, CEO of the International Genomics Consortium, says that he began surveying the field in the late '90s and found that universities and other organizations that actually had the resources to establish a biobank were reluctant to grant access to it beyond their own faculty members. "There was not ... a universal bank you could get to," he says. Part of the issue is intellectual property — if access were opened up to people outside the organization, who would own the IP on any discoveries made?

So in 2003, Penny launched expO, the Expression Project for Oncology, to alleviate some of these problems. He and his team raised more than $10 million to get the biobank off the ground, with the idea that they would collect tissues and clinical annotations, and then make that information and those samples available to researchers around the world. The expO team wouldn't own any IP rights, and scientists who used these samples would have to submit their findings to a public database. Today, expO stores tissues from more than 4,000 patients as well as gene expression data on many of those samples.

Quality

But access isn't the only hurdle. "Even if we had complete and open access to every bank of tumors," Compton says, "you would still have this problem of varying and unknown quality." While the quality of any particular sample in a biorepository has always been iffy, the improving resolution of life science tools means that even samples of average quality are no longer good enough. "With the increasing sensitivity, specificity, and analytical power of these tools, you really are raising the bar for the quality of the analyte," she adds. "Biobanks have not caught up with this. They are not prepared to feed this technological revolution."

Until repositories can step up the quality of their collections to meet the demands of genomics tools, this sample shortage will prove to be the weak link in oncology research.

Meredith Salisbury is editor in chief of GenomeWeb. Feel free to disagree with her at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Genome Technology.

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