Last week I participated in HandsOn: Biobanks, an interactive conference exploring the values of biobanking. The warm and collaborative atmosphere made the conference a both moving and encouraging experience.

Here is how the conference made me think about the value of biobanks:

New techniques of fundamental importance to humanity tend to appear in proportion to our needs for them. Efforts to develop efficient uses of alternative energy resources, for example, were not seriously supported until we became truly aware of how the world’s oil finds were running dry.

My impression at the conference was that biobanks could be compared to a new and much needed global energy resource. Biobanks are presently being set up all over the world as part of a new infrastructure not only for medical research, but also for health care and the pharmaceutical industry.

And the point is that efficient uses of this alternative resource of biological material appear urgently needed in our current situation.

Health care costs run amok, and so does the industry’s costs for developing new drugs. An efficient infrastructure of biobank resources would very likely help us come to terms with the problems that accumulate in the old framework.

The industry wastes billions on medical hypotheses that after years of hard work turn out to be unfeasible. Translating research results into safe and efficient drugs often is more complex and time-consuming than the research itself. Using biobanks could speed up the translation of research into drugs and make the process more predictable.

The health care sector too has problems and needs to make its practices more efficient, for example, through personalized medicine. Increasingly clever uses of biobank resources allow researchers to begin answering questions like:

  • Who is in the risk category for developing prostate cancer?
  • Who responds to which treatment?
  • Who will experience side effects?
  • Who can be given a clean bill of health after cancer treatment?

Answering such questions is revolutionary in medicine. So revolutionary in fact, that the intelligent use of biobank resources promises to generate new definitions of health and disease; new notions of diagnosis, treatment, and preventive medicine.

Developing a global infrastructure of biobank resources is a challenge for biobankers. Two challenges that were discussed at the conference were harmonization and evidence-based sampling and storing techniques. I got the impression that these challenges were manageable.

However, seeing the real significance of the biological resources that are being collected in biobanks is a challenge also for politicians, legislators and ethicists. To approach the political, legal and ethical issues in the right spirit, I believe we need a bigger picture of our situation.

Perhaps the comparison to our present need to develop intelligent uses of alternative energy resources can provide such a picture.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog