May 26, 2013  Print

The development of biobanks in Australia - which have the potential to fast track research which could save thousands of lives - is being hampered by a lack of public awareness and funding.

That’s the opinion of Jane Carpenter, Australian co-chair of an international conference on biobanking which was held earlier this month at Sydney’s Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Ms Carpenter, who manages the Australian Breast Cancer Tissue Bank headquartered at Westmead Millennium Institute, says there is an urgent need to raise public and political awareness of the value of biobanks.

“Biobanking expedites medical research enormously and reduces health care costs by enabling the practice of personalised medicine,” said Ms Carpenter. 

“An increasing number of treatment decisions are made based on analysis of patient tissue which reduces the incidence of patients receiving ineffective therapies.”

“However, biobanks are very expensive to establish and operate and we need new models for sustainable funding.”

More than 300 biobank representatives from around the world attended the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) Annual Meeting in Sydney.

ISBER represents biobanks for a wide range of biological materials such as human tissue and clinical data, as well as seeds, grains and animal tissues.

ISBER estimates that there are now thousands of biobanks globally, ranging from small privately held repositories through to huge government institutions and expects their number will grow by another quarter by 2025. ISBER President, Kathi Shea, says the biggest challenge was to find ways to co-ordinate and harmonise this rapidly growing field.

“Proposed changes to national and international legal and ethical guidelines have the potential to impact biobanking collaborations,” said Ms Shea.

According to Ernst and Young, Australia is the number one biotechnology country in the Asia pacific region and the 6th worldwide.

Westmead Millennium Institute breast cancer researcher, Professor Christine Clarke, says biobanking is vital to biotechnology research.

“The ready availability of high quality biological samples expedites our research enormously but if we had to pay the full cost of those samples and their storage they would be unaffordable,” said Professor Clarke.

The recently released McKeon Review of health and medical research recommended that the Australian Government provide “significant funding” to develop a national biobank hub linking existing and future specimen biobanks.

Jane Carpenter says it is encouraging that the Review has recognised the key role biobanking now plays in medical research and health care.

“An important conclusion of the McKeon Review is that Australia fully embed medical research in all aspects of health care and we at ISBER believe that it is essential that biobanks are integrated and financially supported within the health care system.”