Guest blog by Emma Lawrence, PhD. 

Unlocking research potential through sample visibility

There are hundreds of thousands of human samples currently stored in the UK; the research questions they could address are endless. It has been well documented that human samples are excellent experimental models; their use early in drug development can decrease the risk of failed progression into Phase I and II trials.  Research into precision medicine will further amplify the need for human samples in biomedicine. It is becoming obvious that using human tissue derived from donors  will lead to better science; thus, their value to research is clear. But where are all these samples and how do we unlock their vast potential?

Why the mystery?

Although these many samples exist, it has been challenging to access and use them in research for a number of reasons. Predominately, the majority of researchers simply do not know where samples are located. Samples are stored in a variety of biorepositories including research institutions,hospitals and biobanks. Each of these storage facilities will have a different data system and standard, varying from excel sheets to databases. There’s also inconsistency in what data is available between organisations. For the samples to be useful in research, researchers will need data on the sample, the patient it was taken from, the treatment and storage of the sample, the consent and ethics/governance that applies to its use, as well as any study-specific information. Therefore, the key to unlocking these samples is to unlock the associated data.

Making samples visible through data

The UKCRC Tissue Directory and Coordination Centre (TDCC) was set up to address many of these issues. In 2016, we launched the UK’s first cross disease sample directory. To date we have better characterised over 180 sample resources, hosting over 400 sample collections, covering 136 diseases. This data is now all compiled in one open access, freely searchable database: the UKCRC Tissue Directory. Researchers can search by gender, age and disease or find resources that can acquire bespoke collections. This was achieved through the introduction of a data standard, which means that it is easier to pool data from different sample resources.

In addition to the unlocked power of the samples, the sample resources themselves remain an untapped infrastructure. There are over 300 existing human sample resources in the UK, from longitudinal cohorts to disease-based biobanks to bespoke collections services. These are embedded in a clinical environment and often have years of experience working with researchers, clinicians and pathologists. They can help researchers decide which conditions samples should be processed in, what associated data the researcher may need to answer a specific research question and they may even be able to offer help in experimental or assay design.

Accessing quality ethical samples

Once researchers have identified samples or resources that may be of use to their research, what’s next? Their own institution will have rules and regulations about what they will and won’t allow research to be conducted on. There are many layers of governance that applies to the use of samples in the UK. Furthermore, since the UKCRC TDCC is unable to audit the registered resources for quality control purposes, it is worth having a mechanism in place to make sure the samples are suitable for your work.