The Past, Present, and Future of Biobanks

Biobanks are dedicated to managing biospecimens for research purposes. Even though biobanks have been around for 100 years, it’s only been in the last few decades that we have seen significant advancements in the science of biobanking. This has led to an availability of high-quality biospecimens which has, in turn, fuelled advances in medical research.

Biobanks: The Past

Historically, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been maintaining biorepositories and using the materials stored to expand our understanding of diseases and for developing medical countermeasures since the Civil War. Other U.S. Government and nongovernmental organizations are also engaged in curating human and other samples for future studies, as are organizations in other countries. One of the first biorepositories was established as part of the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, by DoD in 1862.

In the olden days, scientists often collected and used biospecimens in isolation. They had to work out the best ways to collect, handle and store different types of biospecimens. Inconsistent collection, shipping, and processing protocols often led to poor quality specimens and suboptimal experimental results 1. Moreover, in the past, the scope of biospecimen use was limited. Researchers often collected biospecimens for a single study and stored information in a laboratory notebook. International collaborations were also limited due to a lack of funding as well as resources.

In 1999 the United States National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued a report containing policy recommendations about handling human biological specimens. In 2005 the United States National Cancer Institute founded the Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research (OBBR) so that it could have a division to establish a common database and standard operating procedures for its partner organizations with biospecimen collections. In 2006 the Council of the European Union adopted a policy on human biological specimens which was novel for discussing issues unique to biobanks.

ISBER was the brainchild of our first president Elaine Gunter, and was organized in 1999 through a series of meetings at the American Type Culture Collection headquarters in Virginia, and at McKesson Bioservices and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), both in Maryland. The founding members were from a variety of government, commercial and academic biobanking organizations. The first meeting was co-sponsored by the NCI and was held in Rockville Maryland in 2000. Today ISBER has thousands of members across 30+ countries involved in long-term preservation and storage of animal, environmental, human, microorganism culture, museum, and plant/seed collections.

Other organizations which participated in creating written guidelines about biobanking are the following: World Medical Association, Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences, Council of Europe, Human Genome Organisation, World Health Organization, and UNESCO.

Biobanks: The Present

We are entering the golden age of biobanking. The last two decades have witnessed a massive rise in chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer 2. But new technologies now allow scientists to catalog changes in the genes, proteins, and cellular metabolism for different diseases. The increase in disease burden and technological advances have, in turn, led to an increased reliance on biorepositories to collect and manage biospecimens for research. Millions of samples are now deposited in biobanks every year 3. Furthermore, the biobanking market is expected to reach USD2.69 billion by 2022 4.

Advances in epidemiology and omics science have also led to an increased interest in infrastructure development and data sharing facilitated by biobank of specimens and linked health information 9.

However, biobanks still grapple with a number of technical, financial, legal and ethical issues 1. There is still no global harmonization of biospecimen handling processes. Variations in sample management can drastically affect biospecimen quality 5. Organizations like ISBER have published best practice guidelines to help standardize specimen handling 6.

Recent efforts by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have also contributed to the standardized biobanking practices. The ISO 20387 standard lays down the general requirements for biobanking.

Many questions remain about specimen “ownership”, informed consent and use of specimens in different studies 1. The laws on consent for specimen use vary around the world. Concerns also remain about specimen and data privacy 7. Biobanking software can keep data private while at the same time allowing researchers to track biospecimens and monitor storage temperatures and specimen quality.

Biobanks: The Future

The future of biobanking is particularly exciting. Artificial intelligence, deep learning, computational models and semantic searches could all revolutionize biobanking as we know it 4.

Some of the fields that will particularly be impacted by this onset of technology are 8:

  • Biosamples and data types (Microbiome, body fluids, imaging data)
  • Sampling technologies (Circulating free DNA)
  • Sample stabilization ( Room temperature stabilization of biomolecules)
  • Sample storage
  • Sample analytics (Metabolomics, proteomics, NMR)
  • Data management solutions

Artificial Intelligence will play a big role in the coming years. AI will define and measure the quality of biosamples; for example, AI systems could assess DNA integrity with DNA gel electrophoresis images and could determine the percentage of tumor and necrosis with digital histopathology images of tissue samples. AI applications will also analyze the contents of the research proposal and then will recommend biosamples suitable to specific uses. For this, AI could extract important information (e.g., the type of biosample, the type of analyte, the method of analysis, the target disease, and research purposes) from the research proposal and could analyze the references to preanalytical and analytical variations related to these elements 10.


Biobanks have come a long way in the past century. Methods to process, store and analyze biospecimens have become increasingly sophisticated. The industry as a whole is working to develop standardized best practices.
Given the complexity and challenges faced by biorepositories, all biorepository administrators, including those with established repositories and those who are just starting repositories, both nationally and internationally, are encouraged to collaborate in an organized and productive manner to address common concerns and formulate acceptable standards and practices, and to deal with these in a comprehensive and thoughtful manner. The first challenge is identifying those who will take the lead in this effort. The future of biobanking will be very exciting as we leverage the power of new technologies to improve our biospecimen management.


  1. Vaught and Lockhart. The Evolution of Biobanking Best Practices. Clin Chim Acta. 2013
  2. Integrated chronic disease prevention and control. World Health Organization (Online) Accessed June 17, 2019.
  3. The Continuing Evolution of Biobanking: Marching Toward Standardization. Fluidigm (Online) Accessed June 17, 2019
  4. Kurt Zatloukal. Innovative Technology and Its Contribution to Biobanking. Presentation at Global Biobank Week. (Online) Accessed June 17, 2019
  5. NCI Best Practices for Biospecimen Resources. National Cancer Institute. 2016 (Online) Accessed June 17, 2019
  6. Campbell et al. Revision of the ISBER Best Practices: Summary of Changes and the Editorial Team’s Development Process. Biopreserv. Biobank. 2018
  7. Harris et al. Toward a roadmap in global biobanking for health. European Journal of Human Genetics. 2012
  8. Innovative Technology and Its Contribution to Biobanking Kurt Zatloukal M.D.Institute of Pathology, University of Graz, Austria
  9. Biobanking in a Constantly Developing Medical World – Artene, Ciurea, Purcaru, Tache, Tataranu, Lupu, Dricu
  10. Jae-Eun Lee. Artificial Intelligence in the Future Biobanking: Current Issues in the Biobank and Future Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. Biomed J Sci&Tech Res 7(3)- 2018.

Written by: Srikanth Adiga, CEO, Krishagni

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