These diseases are usually called rare diseases (or orphan diseases). They often (but not always) have genetic origin. They often affect children, are disabling and can even be life-threatening, and in many cases organ systems in the body degenerate.
Because the diseases are rare, they are difficult for doctors to diagnose. Even if one manages to make a diagnosis, treatments are often lacking. It’s hard to do research and develop treatments when the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.
In recent years one has begun to prioritize research on rare diseases, not least in the EU. A background to this trend is the development of biobank research. It starts to make it possible to do research on rare diseases, even though the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.
How? Since one can collect samples and data from such patient groups in biobanks that are linked with each other in international networks. Biobank networks thus give researchers access to large enough material to identify genetic and other origins of rare diseases. In this way, one can begin to develop diagnoses and treatments for small patient groups spread across the world.
In an article in the Journal of Biorepository Science for Applied Medicine,
twenty researchers, among them Mats G. Hansson, describe trends in research on rare diseases. They mention several international biobank networks developed to make such research possible, and describe the challenges that they have to deal with.
One challenge is to develop a common standard for how to, for example, document and code samples for rare diseases. Otherwise it is difficult to locate relevant samples in biobanks in different parts of the world and use them in research. One also needs to link the samples to electronic health records. Otherwise, the patterns behind the diseases will not be visible to the research.
Another challenge is that ethical review and governance operate at a national level, and often in different ways in different countries. In one case, mentioned in the article, where the researchers needed to use data from 130 patients from 30 different countries (and collaborate with 103 clinical centers), it took two years to get ethical approval of the project.
The project was not ethically controversial: 97% of the ethical review committees approved the project without requiring changes or further information. The time delay was due to problems of coordination between the governance systems in the different countries.
Another challenge mentioned in the article is to make researchers, doctors and patients aware of the existence of biobanks for research on rare diseases, and the importance of contributing to these biobank networks by collecting samples and updating databases.
The trend to link biobanks in networks has been clear for a while, even independently of the research on rare diseases. But this research really highlights a key feature in today’s biobanking: its infrastructural nature. Research on rare diseases, needing data from patients spread across the world, can therefore also likely accelerate the development of biobanks as infrastructures for future research.