Academic Biobanking: What’s happening – and what’s in store for the future?

Academic biobanks support preclinical and translational research by collecting, storing, analysing, and distributing biological samples and associated data to academic and industry researchers.

And in fact, hundreds of academic biobanks have been established over the past decade to support the growing emphasis on personalized medicine, genetic and genomic research, biomarker identification, and companion diagnostic development.1

A 2012 survey of 456 American biobanks found 67% were part of an academic institution that stored anywhere from tens of samples to millions. Over half (53%) were established to support research on a certain disease or disease area with the most common being cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and HIV/AIDs.

Storage included serum and plasma (77%), solid tissue (69%), and whole blood (55%). The majority (87%) stored more than one sample type, while 8% stored eight or more sample types. DNA was the most common molecule isolated from samples, with only 7% of biobanks isolating protein.2

Academic biobanks face high operating costs and limited funding along with the need to balance the interests and requirements of researchers, IRBs, grants, funding bodies, patients, and donors.

Additionally, for clinical research projects, they must abide by best practices for collecting, storing, and handling biological samples to maintain sample integrity as they collect, curate, and store associated patient data per regulatory guidelines.

Funding constraints also add complexity to maintaining valuable collections, as they often require well-planned sustainability strategies. As such, academic biobanks have a lot to consider regarding their future.


Concerns about siloes, storage – and infrastructure


At any given academic institution – investigators, departments, institutes, and core services all have their own independent collections. This creates hundreds of siloes of data – and no place to easily access what’s available on campus.

Many academic biobanks are storing samples that do not have consent for reuse and too often are stored in freezers with horrible inventory management. This has led to capacity rates far lower than industry best practices.

What’s more, exponential growth in freezer storage at most academic institutions has created concerns about infrastructure burden, the ability to recruit new investigators for lack of research space, as well as environmental issues. And many academic “biobanks” are not put in suitable spaces designed for storage. This often causes additional issues related to increased temperatures and complications with compressor failure.


The challenge of financial sustainability


Financial sustainability and long-term funding is one of the biggest concerns for academic biobanks. Funding for academic biobanks most commonly comes from associated academic or research organizations or federal governments. Only 11% of surveyed American biobanks use fee-for-service to recover costs.2 Biobank operational costs can be substantial, as there is considerable cost to sourcing and storing biological samples not to mention handling patient data in a regulatory-compliant manner.

In recent years, even though the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US has pledged $142 million to support biobanking associated with the Precision Medicine Initiative, overall funding from the NIH has been shrinking. This has led to increasingly competitive federal subsidies for grants, which creates more demand for external funding and collaborations that require more strict sample management strategies (CFR Part 11 Compliance).

The UK government, Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust have provided over £60 million to the UK Biobank project. And government support for biobanks remains strong in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan.4,5

However, government funding has decreased in other parts of the world, including Australia and Singapore, forcing the close of biobanks such as the Singapore Bio-bank.5,6

What’s more, academic institutions are paying millions of dollars toward infrastructure, electricity, real estate, lost opportunity – and the risk of storing hundreds of freezers throughout any given institution.

This is why more biobanks are implementing fee for service to recover some of their operational costs. Legal guidelines in the US, UK, and many other countries forbid using human biological samples for profit. However, academic biobanks can charge for the services required to provide these samples. Economic analyses in Canada and Australia show fee-for-service models cannot cover all operational costs of a biorepository.3,5


The future of academic biobanking


More than 50% of academic biobanks report increased demand for samples, with the influx of personalized medicine driving this need.

As the fields of personalized medicine, genetic and genomic research, biomarker identification, and companion diagnostics grow, academic biobanks will likely see a booming increase in demand for samples.

Governments around the world are pushing for academic biobanks to become financially sustainable, so more will likely implement fee-for-service and other business principles to maintain financial security.

And organizations such as the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) are working to standardize best practices across the industry to help ensure samples stored in academic biobanks can be reliably used in research studies.


Federated biobanking: From siloes to centralized


This brings up the discussion about federated models and what they can provide. Academic institutions such as Stanford School of Medicine are increasingly interested in developing federated models for biobanking.

In a nutshell, federated biobanks centralize and consolidate collections. They allow access to sample-level data for internal and external users – along with the ability to increase collaborations and publications – while still addressing governance, ownership, rules, and processes for sample use. This process ensures Principle Investigators and other “sample owners” have a say in how their samples are used, while at the same time increasing opportunity for collaboration.

While no one can remove or change anything within a given collection, the opportunity to see what is available is there – with requests managed by a central resource.

All said, the future of academic biobanking could very well hinge on advantages the federated models create.

  • Inventoried and consolidated biorepositories throughout campuses all using a federated biobanking LIMS application, where sample level data is fed up centrally and made available for potential collaboration.
  • Onsite consolidation services to reduce the footprint of freezers on campus while taking archival collections offsite.
  • Cost recovery and sustainability models built into the overall project to address costs while increasing collaboration.
  • Incentives for investigators to participate, so they will write sample management services (as opposed to freezers) within their grant budget requests.

When deployed successfully, a centralized strategy for academic biobanking leveraging a federated model can significantly reduce cost, improve sample quality, ensure efficient access to samples, and support much needed sustainability and cost recovery models. And Brooks Life Sciences are experts at supporting a comprehensive strategy for delivering an enterprise federated approach to biobanking.




  1. Mackenzie, F., Biobanking trends, challenges, and opportunities. Pathobiology, 2014. 81(5-6): p. 245-51.
  2. Henderson, G.E., et al., Characterizing biobank organizations in the U.S.: results from a national survey. Genome Med, 2013. 5(1): p. 3.
  3. Seiler, C.Y., et al., Sustainability in a Hospital-Based Biobank and University-Based DNA Biorepository: Strategic Roadmaps. Biopreserv Biobank, 2015. 13(6): p. 401-9.
  4. Lee, S., P.E. Jung, and Y. Lee, Publicly-funded biobanks and networks in East Asia. Springerplus, 2016. 5(1): p. 1080.
  5. Chalmers, D., et al., Has the biobank bubble burst? Withstanding the challenges for sustainable biobanking in the digital era. BMC Med Ethics, 2016. 17(1): p. 39.
  6. Uzarski, D., et al., A Plan for Academic Biobank Solvency-Leveraging Resources and Applying Business Processes to Improve Sustainability. Clin Transl Sci, 2015. 8(5): p. 553-7.