Will large biobanks lead to breakthroughs?

Sorensen asks the panel: “Experts are claiming that large scale biobanks are going to lead to [scientific] breakthroughs. Is that true?”

Sewards replies first: Having different varieties of specimens and data together is very powerful, as is having one place researchers can go to get data. Greater variability and generalizability are the wins.

Edwards adds: For a while it seemed like everybody was starting their own repository, whether governments or institutions. Scaling up has benefits but do we really need to scale up in this way, or are we doing it in the best way over all, is there too much redundancy?

Edwards continues: Operating biobanks at larger scales creates larger scale ethical questions as well. Quality suffers with samples and data from repositories, in some cases, and even ethics quality can suffer. In one significant case, the State of Texas was required to destroy 5 million samples in a biobank due to a parents’ group lawsuit. The details of the case aside, its result was a scientific loss for everyone involved.

The biggest breakthrough we’ve seen is in cancer research — such as determining which chemo will work for which person. A lot of the biobanks forming now are specific to a single disease, such as autism.

Photo by Jeffrey Luke for CityClub Seattle