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A Second Life for Specimens Means More Medical Progress

You conduct thousands, perhaps millions of tests in your clinical lab every year. But do you know where the remnant biofluids and tissue samples go? For too many labs, they are discarded when they could have been made available for medical research.

Every year, an estimated 3 billion or more clinical specimens are discarded. These are samples of biofluids and tissues that research organizations could have used to help advance the development of new treatments, vaccines, and diagnostic tools, as well as to validate tests and lab instruments. What’s more, the labs that routinely place clinical remnant samples in waste may be missing an opportunity to generate revenue by making these samples available for research.

Unfortunately, specimen deficits are common in the life sciences research world. In fact, four in five researchers have had to limit the scope of their work due to difficulties obtaining biospecimens. Worse, the challenge of procuring biospecimen procurement is only getting worse: Precision medicine—where cell types or genetic biomarkers can dictate a particular treatment—requires precision research.

In the past, a cancer researcher might have been able to complete their work using any 50 breast cancer tissue specimens. But today, that researcher is zeroing in on subtypes of disease and might reasonably need 50 samples of tumor tissue from patients with metastatic, HER2-positive breast cancer, with a HER2 L755S mutation, refractory to treatment with Herceptin. Other sorting characteristics are important as well, including patient age, gender, race, condition, severity, blood type, past procedures, test results, outcomes, smoking status, family history, and more.

The specimen procurement challenge

Gathering even broad categories of biospecimens has traditionally required extensive legwork by the research organization—phone calls, emails, and perhaps online or in-person meetings to determine how and where to get the necessary samples and data. Often, researchers turn to multiple sources for a collection. Arranging procurement from multiple sources means multiple sets of paperwork and processing for contracting, order management, and regulatory compliance.

The solution to this labor intensity is to have biospecimen procurement operate more like consumer commerce. These days, there seems to be a marketplace for everything. Why not make procuring specimens as easy as buying books or organizing a travel itinerary online? In both cases, multiple suppliers (publishers, airlines, hotels, etc.) come together in one place to serve multiple customers shopping from one marketplace.

The marketplace model

Biospecimen procurement is starting to benefit from similar streamlining. Clinical labs and other health care organizations that have access to human biospecimens—including blood centers, biorepositories, and pathology labs—are coming together online to offer deidentified specimens to the research community. Research organizations can now more easily procure clinical remnant specimens (consented samples for research use only) or arrange for specimens to be collected prospectively.

Every specimen is annotated with a wealth of data, including about the patient from whom it came, including demographics, medical conditions, and treatments and lab tests they’ve undergone. Within a data-rich marketplace, researchers can search for and filter samples based on a number of patient and specimen criteria to fine-tune biospecimen matching. All data is deidentified before it reaches the marketplace to protect patients’ privacy.

A specimen marketplace can also unify and automate the details, in this case, contracting, compliance/ethics (IRB) audits, quoting, order management, invoicing, and more. And streamlining this process benefits both researchers and providers. For sample providers, they can connect to thousands of researchers globally that may have a need for those precise specimens. For researchers in need of samples for upstream research, they can procure specimens through a centralized marketplace, instead of dealing with individual labs that supply samples.

Modern medicine is staggering in its capabilities. It’s time for biospecimen procurement to catch up to promote further progress. A marketplace for biospecimens can streamline procurement, help save time and money, and support researchers with their invaluable work while generating a new revenue stream for the clinical labs that supply samples.


Read more on Clinical Lab Manager.