What is a Biobank?

What is a biobank?

April 29, 2019

A biobank is the centralized source of high-quality human biological specimens. Biobanks are often called biorepositories, however, there exists a fine distinction between the two. A biorepository involves the collection of plants, animals and other non-human samples; whereas a biobank mainly store biological samples obtained from humans. Biobanking is the process of collecting, storing and distributing human biological samples and related data for clinical research purpose.

The Two Main Components of Biobanking are:

1. Biological material handling: It includes biospecimen collection, storage, and distribution.

2. Database management system: It consists of donor-related information such as informed consent, medical history, lifestyle data, and demographic information.

Types of Samples Collected in Biobanks:

There is a list of human samples that are collected and stored in biobanks which includes whole blood, plasma, serum, RBC, white cells, DNA, RNA, protein, cell lines, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid, amniotic fluid buffy coat, bone marrow stem cells, etc.

Types of Biobanks

  • Population-based: A population-based biobank is a repository of human DNA samples which collects, analyzes and stores phenotypic and genetic information on representative samples of their source populations. Population biobanks have largely been involved in international efforts to harmonize data and samples. Biobanks collecting samples from twins are also categorized under the domain of population-based biobanks.
  • Disease-oriented Biobanks: These are also called as clinical biobanks. They collect biological samples from patients which are further used to look at the genetic and non-genetic factors of diseases. They are usually established in hospitals and research institutes. Tissue banks and rare disease biobanks are the two main domains of disease-oriented biobanks.

History of Biobanks

The history of biobanks is not long. The collection and storage of human tissue has been part of basic medical research for nearly a century. The initial biobanks were university-based and used to facilitate the research needs of institute driven projects. These biobanks randomly collected samples, they were not storing specific collections. Later with the development in the IT sector, genomics, proteomics and other related areas of science, the research needs to be increased dramatically. This led to the creation of a variety of biobanks. In addition to the research needs, the regulatory pressures have also contributed to this change in the basic paradigm of biobanks. Biobanks not only store samples, but extensive clinical and genomic level information. Therefore modern day biobanks act more than just supporting tools and are recognized as an important platform for biospecimen and data sharing.

The chronological development of biobanks over these years is as follows:

  • Academic/university-based repositories, developed exclusively for specific projects and research requirement
  • Institutional/government-based biobanks that hold greater numbers of samples for wider research purposes
  • Commercial biorepositories
  • Population-based biobanks, that holds samples from a broad population who might or might not have a specific disease
  • Virtual biobanks that hold no physical specimens but offer location and retrieval services for samples held globally or nationally

Data sharing is one of the most powerful factors behind new innovations. Researchers across the globe have articulated a vision of biobank harmonization, which is crucial for the effective development of biobanking as a process. The future of biobanking is, therefore, the ability to harness the full potential of biobanks and acquire biospecimens in a reasonable time.

Biobanking Operations

Biobanking mainly involves the following four standard operations:

  • Collection: It is the preliminary step wherein the biological samples are collected and other sample related information such as collection date and time, origin, quantity, etc.
  • Processing: It ensures both preservation of sample properties and the integrity of the associated clinical or genetic data. An example is the Tetrazolium salt test to check cell viability in the skin graft collected from a cadaver.
  • The quality and consistency of biospecimen sampling and processing determines the reliability of molecular and clinical data deciphered from the sample.
  • Storage: After the biospecimens are collected and processed, they are stored in an environment that keeps their integrity and quality maintained. For eg: cryopreservation of tissue samples in liquid nitrogen at -196 degree Celsius.
  • Distribution: A biobank typically makes available samples it collects or large collections for cancer or cohort research.

Objectives of a Biobank

A human biobank aims to build a central resource that can support research intended to better understand human diseases. Some of the goals of the biobanks are as follows:

  • Creating a collection of samples from different sources
  • Conducting research on the collected samples
  • Facilitating the transfer of knowledge
  • Ensuring sample quality, quantity, and representativeness


The concept of biobanking is not new. Over the past thirty years, biobanks have evolved considerably. In comparison to the initial biobanks, the modern day biobanks are designed as a common resource supporting a broad range of scientific investigations. The era of personalized medicine has brought in new discoveries for a better understanding of the etiopathology of human diseases. The role and importance of biobanks which links the biological samples to medical and biomedical information have become more important in the present time. Recent advances in translational research have also introduced multi-disciplinary approaches which in turn has provoked a lot of contemporary questions that are yet to be answered. Proper networking and harmonization of biobanks further can unleash its full potential as a powerful single platform for research innovations. Biobanking due to their broad coverage faces a number of ethical, social and legal challenges related to sample storage, donor data protection, and information sharing. As a process, biobanking is facing the lack of harmonization, lack of standards, and best practices for collecting data and processing samples. Harmonization is a more flexible approach aimed at ensuring the effective interchange of valid information and samples. It further refers to generating, sharing, pooling, and analyzing data and biological samples to allow combining resources and comparing results obtained from different biobanks.



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