Biobanks are needed

Great expectations for gene research – the storage of sample collections presents a challenge.


Gene research has given rise to great expectations. For example, when will the time come when doctors will examine the genes that predispose us to certain diseases and then prescribe precise instructions for preventing and treating the disease? This could take some time, but the vision is by no means impossible.

“As soon as we can move beyond studying individual genes to properly focusing on combinations of genes and the combined effect of genes and the environment, then we can start developing targeted medical treatments,” said Juha Kere, Professor at the University of Helsinki and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, in his public lecture at the Meilahti campus on 4 September.

A single gene predisposing to common illnesses does not yet increase the risk of contracting those diseases. Diseases are often the result of a very complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Understanding these combinations is a huge task and requires going through extremely extensive sample data, said Kere.

Therefore, large collections of samples, i.e. biobanks, are needed. There are not many of these available because storing samples requires a great deal of expertise and is one the challenges posed in the research.

“Some of our older sample collections no longer fill the requirements of modern biobanks. Biobanks are not permanent goldmines, but are diminishing,” says Kere.

For example, compiling a database comprising one hundred thousands samples takes a long time and is very expensive. How then should the samples be preserved for future generations of researchers?

“Of course, we don’t know what part of the cells will be of interest to researchers in the future. Unfortunately, we don’t even know how to preserve whole cells in such a way that they could still be studied in twenty years.”

For example, two decades ago researchers were not yet interested in DNA, so the collections comprised just serum. However, it is impossible to isolate DNA from it. There is also a need for a legislative act on biobanks, such as is being drawn up in Finland right now. Sweden has had an act on biobanks for five years.

“A consent form is drawn up for all samples that are to be preserved for longer than three months, in which the donor is asked what the sample can be used for. For example, it is possible to prohibit its use for research altogether or give permission for general scientific use,” says Kere.

Professor Juha Kere's lecture was a part of the centenary programme of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters.

Text: Tapio Ollikainen
Photo: Eero Roine

Translation: AAC Noodi Oy

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