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The Evolution Of Virtual Biobanks: Advantages and Considerations

January 14, 2019

Scientist on Tablet

Access to biospecimens and related data has always been integral to ensuring continued progress in translational medicine and is a key element for many studies. If researchers are unable to find suitable, high-quality samples that are required for their research, their progress is hindered and this can lead to delayed timelines, financial loss and even failed projects due to non-availability of an essential component. 

Biobanks established prior to the 1990s were largely standalone physical entities that stored biosamples but very little associated data. While this helped with a basic need for making it easier to obtain samples from previously banked specimens, demand for greater quantities and types of biosamples over the next couple of decades saw a movement towards networked biobanks in order to provide a more comprehensive repository for researchers. The amount of sample-related clinical data being collected also increased over time. Initially these networks were still physical entities but one that allowed access to a broader range of biospecimens. However, with the emergence of precision medicine and growing specificity in research, even these physical networked biobanks began to fall short of being able to meet the highly specific sample requirements of the research community. Additional reach was required beyond what individual entities were able to provide and this led to the evolution of virtual biobanks. 

Virtual biobanks provide centralized, electronic access to databases of biospecimens and associated data from a federated network of repositories. This process does not require physical aggregation of the samples from the various biobanks but reaching a sample size that is statistically more significant becomes more feasible, even for highly specific criteria. This is often not possible when researchers are relying only on biobanks that they are familiar with due to proximity or past experience and is a much more efficient process than having to reach out to multiple biobanks individually to find matching samples.

Virtual biobanks do not come without their share of concerns. Some considerations to keep in mind are:

  • Ensuring standardized oversight and quality control of participating biobanks

  • Facilitating consistency in data characterization and annotation across disparate biorepositories

  • Addressing ethical concerns and regulatory issues such as patient privacy and appropriate consenting procedures

  • Enabling an appropriate level of visibility into sample usage by recipients and credit for original sample owners

  • Managing financial issues such as initial funding, ongoing financial sustainability, and pricing concerns


Ideally a virtual biobank should be set up such that a central portal provides access to query, and view, details from a broad base of repositories along with information about the biobank and samples, and the ability to communicate directly with the biobank administrator. When a request is placed through the virtual network, it is routed to the appropriate entity(ies) and subsequent sample processing and distribution occurs at the source where the sample is stored. In this manner, a virtual biobank combines the best of both worlds – providing researchers centralized access to a broad set of samples from across disparate banks while allowing the individual entities to retain their standard controls and best practices around storing, processing and distributing of samples. As biobanks move past the original funding obtained from the government, foundations or healthcare institutions, there is greater need than ever to be more self-sustainable and virtual biobanks provide much greater reach thus creating a valuable case for sustainability. Technological controls around tracking and auditing also ensure appropriate visibility for sample owners.

The trends discussed above are global and many countries are making great strides towards instituting large-scale biobanking networks in addition to the existing and emerging regional, disease-specific and institutional banking efforts. There is a wealth of information in each repository and the ability to provide bridges across multiple such efforts will provide unprecedented advantages to translational and clinical research efforts across the globe.  

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