What’s researched in biobanks?
Many different research projects are done using biobank resources. For example, the UK Biobank alone is enabling dozens of studies to go ahead, both in the UK and abroad. These cover a wide range of topics, from investigating if there is a link between lifestyle and sight loss, to looking at possible associations between physical activity and cancer.
Uses of biobanks
The resources stored in biobanks may be used in research to study many things with the aim of benefitting people’s health and wellbeing in the future. For example, researchers may use them to try to find out:
- Why some people get certain diseases and other people don’t
- How effective different treatments are
- Environmental causes of particular diseases
- How your genes affect your likelihood of getting certain diseases
- How your genes affect different treatments
A biobank may not be linked to a specific study. It’s possible that the samples and information in the biobank will be used in a wide range of studies depending on the researchers who apply to use its resources.
It can be difficult to classify biobanks exactly into different types. You may hear them described using the terms ‘research’, ‘population’, ‘therapeutic’, ‘clinical’, ‘disease’ and perhaps others.
It’s hard to define biobanks into separate types because there is often overlap between what they do. If you decide to donate to a biobank, you should be given details about its purpose and what the researchers using it are aiming to find out. However, this may only be in quite general terms.
There are some more commonly used terms to describe the purpose of a biobank.
This type of biobank has samples and data from a particular group of people who are a good representation of a country or area in a country, or a specific group in the population. Often population biobanks contain specimens from healthy people; they allow researchers to look at their genes and information and investigate whether this makes them more or less likely to get a disease or to compare them with similar people who have a disease.
These are collections of samples from healthy people and people who are being treated in hospital for a disease – there may not be much information about the person that they came from. But they will have given permission for a biopsy (small sample of tissue) to be taken so it can be tested to find out more about the disease and help determine the best treatment. If the patient gives consent, there may be additional information about how well treatment worked and whether or not it was effective. The samples can then be used to do research into that disease.
These are often set up in hospitals and focus on studying the causes of diseases. As well as blood and urine samples which are often taken from healthy biobank participants, a biobank focusing on research into cancer would have samples from the cancer tumours of many different people. Another example is a biobank studying motor neurone disease (a condition that affects the nervous system) would have samples of the fluid that surrounds your spinal cord.
The samples and information stored at this type of biobank will be used in research looking at one disease only. This means that if you donate to a disease-specific biobank, the consent that you give is likely to be more limited than if you donate to a population biobank (where your samples could be used in a wide range of studies).