About biobanking in Tasmania:
Biobanks exist all over the world, including Australia. In Tasmania, they exist only on a very small scale and are specific to selected researchers and diseases eg. Cancer. However, in other places in the world, such as the UK, they exist on a very large scale. These large scale biobanks can be referred to as population biobanks (or sometimes ‘public biobanks’.) They store very large collections of tissue and information, both from people affected with a wide range of diseases and also healthy people.
They are designed to be used for research into a very wide range of health issues over long periods of time. For these reasons, population biobanks are both more complicated and potentially more beneficial than disease-specific biobanks. ‘Biobanking’ or ‘biobanks’ on this website refers to population biobanks and although other small scale biobanks may also face similar issues, they are not our focus.
What is a ‘biobank’ and what does it do?
A biobank is a place where samples of human tissue are stored. Human tissue means samples taken from people, like their blood or saliva. The biobank stores the samples and information that researchers have learned from the samples.
When you donate to a biobank it will also store your personal information. That might include your name, address, age, medical history and other information about you, like whether you have children, exercise or smoke. This information is kept separate from your tissue samples and security procedures, such as firewalls and data encryption, are put in place to make sure that it is safely stored.
Together, these collections of tissue and information make it possible for researchers to undertake a whole range of research projects that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. For example, researchers can use the tissue and information stored in a biobank to learn about diseases such as cancer and diabetes, medical procedures like organ transplants and many other health problems.
There are lots of different types of biobanks. In Australia, there is only one population biobank, in Western Australia. But there are small and large biobanks that are owned by research facilities, universities and companies which are more common. These are used to learn about particular diseases. For example, one Australian biobank has a collection of breast cancer tissue that researchers are using to understand how women get breast cancer and to look for treatments. Other biobanks are not associated with particular diseases but are set up so that researchers can study a whole range of diseases and other medical conditions in the Australian population. There are even biobanks which collect samples from law enforcement for forensic and criminal investigations.
Why would Tasmania want a public biobank?
It is thought that a public biobank would make research more efficient.
When lots of human samples and personal information are stored in one place it makes conducting research more efficient. It costs less money to obtain samples and the researchers have them on hand, ready to use, when they start their projects. This means that more information can be learned, more quickly.
The same samples can be used for different research projects. This saves money because researchers are able to reuse donated samples and have to spend less time finding samples to use in research. Excitingly, it may mean that researchers can develop new medicines and treatments faster. Samples can also be used to find out which medicines work the best for each person.
However, It is not quite as simple as researchers just taking the sample and using it, there are protections for the use of the samples. Biobanking raises many ethical and legal issues and as such how they operate needs to be controlled. The issues raised by Biobanks are discussed in more detail on this website. Please click on the issues tab at any time to read more.
Tasmania would be an ideal place for a population biobank for a number of reasons.
• Tasmanians have demonstrated that they are willing participants in medical research in our state.
• Our population is relatively stable, and easy to trace, which makes some of the administrative parts of running a biobank more manageable.
It’s important that those involved in medical research in Tasmania continue to earn the trust of the Tasmanian public. Without community trust in researchers, research institutions (like the University of Tasmania and the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania) and scientific processes, medical research can’t function effectively. That’s why getting community input on how to run biobanks, and how best to look after people’s samples and information, is so important. Please take our survey and give us your opinion on biobanking in Tasmania. You can learn more about UTAS and the Menzies by selecting the desired word link.