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Widespread underuse of specimens concerns biobanks, says new research

Economic sustainability another major challenge for biobanks, an iSpecimen® review indicates, even as outside researchers struggle to find the specimens they need

LEXINGTON, MA., May 22, 2018 – A majority of global biobanks – collectors of human fluids, cells and tissue for biomedical research – are underutilizing their specimens while struggling with financial pressures that threaten their long-term viability, suggests a new review of biobanks and biorepositories conducted by iSpecimen.

Forty-two biobanks answered an iSpecimen online questionnaire about their work in March, and iSpecimen detailed the findings today in Dallas at the ISBER Annual Meeting & Exhibits, which runs through Thursday. Sixty-seven (67) percent of the participating biobanks cited underutilization of samples as a major or moderate biobank challenge – the most frequently cited of 13 choices. More than half (53 percent) the participants said they collect more samples than they release to researchers.

Meanwhile, 64 percent of respondents cited economic sustainability as a major or moderate biobank challenge, the second-highest of 13 choices and the number-one major challenge.

Although biobanks can charge fees for distributing specimens, many are leaving revenue on the table. Only 44 percent of respondents release specimens to external researchers from for-profit organizations (e.g., pharma and biotech companies) with whom they’re not actively collaborating. Only 24 percent of respondents said specimens are released to specimen brokers or commercial biorepositories.

The impact of underutilization

“These findings are important,” said iSpecimen Founder and CEO Christopher Ianelli, MD, PhD. “We already know that researchers struggle to obtain the samples they need for their important research. Our review confirms that there’s a pent-up supply of biospecimens in storage, and that biobanks want to do something about it. Broader sample sharing would address both the underutilization and specimen availability problems, as well as the challenge of economic sustainability.”

Researchers working on new discoveries, treatments, cures and vaccines have traditionally had to invest a lot of time trying to cobble together the quantities and types of specimens they need from the institutions that have them. In one National Cancer Institute study, four out of five researchers reported limiting the scope of their work due to the difficulty of procuring high-quality specimens.

Why biobank?

Researchers aren’t the only ones affected by biobank performance. A patient who contributes a sample has at least a theoretical stake in its use in research, especially if the patient has a serious disease they hope researchers will cure.

Nonetheless, only 4 percent of participants in the review cited supporting wishes of philanthropic patients, i.e., those who have donated biospecimens, as the most important goal of their organization. And only 8 percent cited increase of revenue to support biobank sustainability as the most important goal.

Meanwhile, 65 percent cited goals reflecting the institution’s prestige, including supporting research within our own organization (45 percent), increasing publications at our organization(14 percent), and increasing the stature of our organization (6 percent).

Biospecimen utility

Perennial biospecimen underutilization means that biospecimens – the sample itself and the related data – age out of usefulness. The average specimen age for 42 percent of the respondents was more than five years, a period in which many important medical advances have occurred. The medical data attached to a six-year-old sample would not reflect, say, new cancer biomarkers, a data gap potentially rendering the sample obsolete.

Technology challenges

The biobank review also explored technology, finding that biobanks have a hodgepodge of software, data and search capabilities that likely impede specimen utilization.

Search capabilities in biobanks are especially primitive, with many researchers having trouble finding specimens within their own organizations. Internal researchers can access an online inventory list of specimens at only 27 percent of the participating biobanking organizations. Seventy-three (73) percent of the participating biobanks have no online system in place for their researchers to search their catalog for the cases and specimens they require.

Biobanks are using a variety of schemes to manage their specimen inventory and data about that inventory. More than half of respondents said their biobanks are using primitive, ad hoc systems, e.g., spreadsheets, to manage their specimen inventory and data. And more than half of the respondents use internal data standards to describe their collections. Only 14 percent of respondents use externally defined biorepository standards such as Minimum Information About Biobank Data Sharing (MIABIS) or Ontology for Biobanking (OBIB), which enhance data sharing.

“On the whole, the biobanking landscape is fractured, and current practices impede both biomedical research and future sustainability,” said Ianelli. “Biobanks need strategies for making their collections available and searchable, processing requests, and reinvesting the revenue. The result will be advances in biomedical research and precision medicine, honoring the intentions of philanthropic donor patients.”

iSpecimen’s Director of Marketing Jeffrey Goldman will detail the research today from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Marsalis Hall of the Hyatt Regency Dallas Hotel. iSpecimen will also exhibit in Booth 309.

For more data and discussion, visit

About iSpecimen

Headquartered in Lexington, MA, iSpecimen is the marketplace for human biospecimens, providing researchers with the specimens they need from the patients they want. The privately held company has developed the iSpecimen Marketplace, an online platform connecting healthcare organizations that have access to patients and specimens with the scientists who need them. Proprietary, cloud-based technology enables researchers to intuitively search for specimens and patients across a federated partner network of hospitals, labs, biobanks, blood centers, and other healthcare organizations. Researchers easily and compliantly gain access to specimens to drive scientific discovery. Partner sites gain an opportunity to contribute to biomedical discovery as well as their bottom line. And ultimately, healthcare advances for all. For more information about iSpecimen, please visit