The Biospecimen Bank

The Biospecimen Bank

What underpins the research that comes out of MIA?

Life in the MIA lab is all about taking data and making it speak, uncovering the biological secrets hidden in cells and all the information that comes with them.

The main source of data at MIA is the two-pronged team of the Medical Research Database and the Biospecimen Bank.

MIA relies heavily on the Biobank, and its enormous collection of melanoma samples. But where do these samples come from? What is a Biobank?

A Biospecimen Bank is a storehouse for biological material and the data related to its source, collection and processing. MIA has an extensive team of people who manage all aspects of the Biobank—a massive undertaking!—that spans the three centres where MIA clinicians see patients.

And that’s what underpins a Biobank—patients. Without patients generously donating their blood, tissue, and other biological samples, there would be no Biobank. Without a Biobank, there would be no data, and without data, there would be no research. Across the three sites of MIA’s Biobank, there are over 30,000 samples from over 13,000 generous patients.

It begins when a patient visits MIA. When a clinician thinks it necessary, one of the Biobank team will meet the patient and the most important step commences—an informed consent discussion. Before any blood, tissue or information is taken, patients are taken through the entire process and given an opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns.

Often the first sample the Biobank receives from a patient is blood. The tubes of blood are spun in a centrifuge at thousands of revolutions per minute, using the force of the spinning to separate the blood into parts.

Each of these parts is used differently for research—whole blood is often used for DNA analysis; plasma can be used to search for fragments of tumour DNA that may be floating in the bloodstream in some patients; and the buffy coat, which is the collection of white blood cells and platelets, is often used for immune cell analysis when processed further to isolate the PBMC's.

Small fractions of blood are transferred to small tubes and labelled with unique and anonymous identifiers, then snap frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Melanoma tissue is also collected from MIA’s patients as part of the Biobank. After a patient’s procedure or surgery, a member of the Biobank team is called to collect the tissue. Amazingly, MIA’s Biobank staff travel far and wide to collect important tissue samples, including to Royal North Shore Hospital, The Mater Hospital, The SAN, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Strathfield Private Hospital, among other places where MIA surgeons and affiliates operate.

The Biobank member will then accompany the tissue to be assessed by a trained melanoma pathologist, fellow or registrar. They decide what is needed for pathological examination and diagnosis, and what is suitable for future research. Small pieces of this suitable tissue are transferred to small tubes, labelled, and frozen.

All the associated data, including the type of specimen, the biological and physical location collected from, the date and time of collection and processing, and where the sample will be stored, is recorded in MIA’s Melanoma Research Database and the samples are moved to the freezers.

These freeze at impossibly cold temperatures to keep these biological specimens at the ready for future research. MIA has freezers that keep blood and recent tissue specimens at -80°C and enormous liquid nitrogen tanks that keep long-term samples stored at -180°C!

An early version of MIA’s Biobank existed at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital from 1999. In 2007, an NHMRC grant allowed the Biobank in its current form to take shape. In 2013, with the advent of immunotherapy clinical trials, the Biobank began to take off with scheduled collections at different points in treatment. The biobank has even expanded most recently to add stool samples to the collection.

This is why the Biobank is such an important asset to MIA. Many of the samples correlate to different points in patient treatment. This means that when researchers use these samples, they can see what was happening in the body of melanoma patients before, during and after treatment. That some samples within the bank extend back so far into the past makes them even more valuable as, using anonymised data from the Medical Research Database, researchers can know the outcomes of treatments associated with the samples.

In 20 years, MIA’s Biospecimen Bank has become one of the most important sources of data for melanoma research worldwide. Because of this enormous collection of samples from so many patients, MIA could launch projects like the Australian Melanoma Genome Project, which produced some ground-breaking findings that have changed the way melanoma is treated. Soon, we’ll meet some of the incredible Biobank team members who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the Biobank remains the invaluable resource it is today.