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Biobank’s massive scanning effort underscores the need to link current patient medical information to their biospecimens

August 28, 2014

Researcher Working with Blue Specimen

The accuracy of medical research often relies on the ability to procure high-quality specimens along with relevant patient medical information required by the scientists. For instance, a researcher may want to study solid tumors from breast cancer patients who were still alive five years post-surgery. However, because that information was not known at the time of specimen collection, it requires patients to be re-contacted in the future in order to garner that information.

Scanning a population
In the United Kingdom, UK Biobank has launched an initiative to scan and catalog updated health statuses and relative samples from 100,000 Brits who previously provided samples to the biobank. Sir Rory Collins, chief executive officer of UK Biobank, told the BBC that while his organization already acquired blood, urine and saliva samples from 500,000 adults between ages 40 and 69, the biobank still needs more data on these patients before they can support current medical research efforts.

"We are trying to understand why one person gets a disease and another does not," Collins told the news source. "The scanning information, when analyzed alongside all the existing health data, will give researchers a unique opportunity to study the causes of ill-health."

Collins expects about one-fifth of the original 500,000 participants to volunteer for a battery of detailed imaging tests of the brain, heart and other organs. If these numbers come to fruition, the 100,000 volunteers will constitute the largest medical scanning project ever undertaken.

Finding the right specimen
As UK Biobank collects the medical information of its volunteers, researchers may wonder how this initiative affects their access to specimens required for their studies. While the scope of the scanning program is impressive, medical researchers in search of sample and patient characteristics with modest prevalence rates may have to look through UK Biobank's database for a very long time before they come upon an acceptable sample quantity. For example, for diseases with a prevalence rate of 0.1%, approximately 100 specimens out of the 100,000 fully cataloged would meet the disease requirements, which may support one small study. If additional requirements are added (such as medications taken or family history) or if another study on that patient population was already undertaken, the available specimens may be even lower.

Fortunately, there are alternatives that provide access to specimens from broad patient populations along with updated medical record information. iSpecimen partners with healthcare facilities to tap into millions of specimen discards along with de-identified patient medical record information and then makes these annotated specimens available to medical researchers. iSpecimen uses its own sophisticated analytical tools to match detailed research requests to specimens that are about to be discarded after clinical testing.

UK Biobank's massive scanning project may prove useful for some research programs. But for others that need large quantities of specimens from particular patient populations, iSpecimen has access to specimens from millions of patients yearly, enabling researchers to quickly gain access to specimens they need.