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Banking our DNA for future generations

toring a population's biomaterial allows high quality research into diseases

The University of Cyprus has been awarded significant EU funding to expand its biobank, an important tool in fighting diseases

By Annette Chrysostomou

Biobanks, collections of medical data and tissue samples for research purposes, are extremely important for helping prevent and fight diseases, but few are aware of what a biobank can accomplish.

This is about to change.

Scientists in Cyprus have worked with this extremely useful tool for years, but hope to take it to a new level with the help of a European grant of €30 million.

Last week the University of Cyprus (UCY) signed a contract for EU funding for upgrading their Molecular Medicine Research Centre into a Centre of Excellence in Biobanking and Genetics Research.

Professor of genetics and director of the centre, Constantinos Deltas, said that so far the two existing biobanks, at the university and the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, haven’t had much money to work with. The department of the UCY has already contributed to high quality research during the last 25 years, especially in the field of inherited renal diseases, but much more can and should be done.

“We have been lagging behind in many things, when it concerns biobanking we have to catch up,” he said.

In the near future there will be a bigger, high quality biobank of European standards and accessible to all Cypriots, with the ultimate aim of pursuing ‘Big Science’ to improve medical care for future generations, he told the Sunday Mail.

The importance of biobanks has been appreciated for years.

Back in 2009, biobanks were the topic of the Time magazine list of ‘10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now’. The article called the biobank “a repository to safeguard your most valuable assets”.

“Think of it as an organic bank account. You put your biomaterial in and earn medical interest in the form of knowledge and therapies that grow out of that deposit — no monetary reward, just the potential that you might benefit from the accumulated data at some later date,” the magazine wrote.

“The importance of biobanks has during the last decade increased in variety and capacity from small collections of samples to large-scale national or international repositories,” researcher Judita Kinkorova wrote in 2016, calling this the era of personalised medicine.

recent study in the journal Nature has shown that, across the world, scientists’ ability to reproduce research is staggeringly low. More than 70 per cent of the 1500 scientific participants in the study could not replicate other scientists’ experiments. And half were unable to replicate their own experiments.

That is why biobanks are so important, they follow best practice guidelines and make research results reproducible as they ensure that protocols are applied in a standardised, harmonised way.

Deltas likens the ability of having access to a biobank material to being ahead in a marathon run, where others are only starting.

“Think of the marathon starting line where everybody else is waiting the gunshot to run, while you are 10 kilometres ahead because you have in your hands a ticket to a high quality biobank.”

The centre’s funding is being offered with two conditions, the first one that it will be matched by another sponsor, the second that it will work with other successful European organisations as advanced partners.

The Cyprus government has agreed to match the €15 million offered, and the University of Cyprus has offered an additional €8 million, bringing the total to €38 million, a sum with which a lot can be done. The €30 million under the grant has to be spent in seven years for building the necessary premises, upgrading the research infrastructure and hiring high calibre personnel to do the work.

One of the organisations with which the university is planning to cooperate is the BBMRI-ERIC, which represents the largest family of biobanks in Europe. Cyprus became an observer member of the BBMRI-ERIC in 2016 following the initiative of Deltas. The other one is the Graz Austria Medical University, which has the largest biobank in Europe.

So what is the university planning to do with the money, €30 million of which need to be spent within the next seven years according to the specifications of the grant?

“The progress in biobanking and related genetics research is going to be gradual because a lot of fundamental work needs to be done in collaboration with the entire medical community. Breakthroughs are not just around the corner but they are coming, and we want to be part of the international league,” Deltas said.

However, even short term goals are probably a big help for patients and their families.

During the next year or so, the plan is to find out why some people who inherit genetic diseases fare better than others, for example why one child of parents with kidney problems needs dialysis while a sibling never gets to this stage of the disease.

Other, more ambitious, plans are to upgrade the centre of excellence in every aspect: the size, the number of researchers, nurses – and the number of patients whose records are going to be archived electronically.

To do that, the public needs to be informed on what exactly a biobank is and what the benefits of contributing to one are, and seminars and lay language newsletters, and using the media, are going to be used to achieve this.

“The message is that people should think of it as an altruistic act. They are sometimes intimidated, they think we take their DNA and that is scary. We are scientists and we are very careful. We don’t do anything without a patient’s approval and all volunteers sign a consent form approved by the Cyprus National Bioethics Committee,” Deltas explained.

“If they don’t want to participate that’s fine, but we do want to encourage people to come forward as this is a very essential way of solving problems. My motto is that every patient should consider participating into a research project if there is one concerned with his/her condition, because it will be to their or their family’s benefit.”

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