|Spring 2010-Banking on Breakthroughs|
The solutions to cancer’s mysteries may lie within ourselves—or more specifically, within our blood, our urine, and even our saliva. These tissues are key ingredients for cancer research, and soon, every patient who visits The Kirklin Clinic®—including those who don’t have the disease—will be able to impact future breakthroughs by contributing samples to the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Fluid and Tissue Bank, which is a new initiative of the UAB Tissue Collection and Banking Facility.
Human tissue samples are vital to the scientific study of all diseases, but they are especially important for cancer research. Scientists use these specimens to compare gene profiles, DNA, clinical outcomes and many other characteristics between people who have cancer and those who don’t. As a result, researchers are able to locate and identify specific genes or DNA mutations that routinely appear in certain cancers, which in turn allows doctors to recognize patients who are more prone to cancer—and the treatments that will be most effective.
Biorepositories, or tissue banks, store and maintain hundreds to thousands of tissue samples for scientific research. According to William Grizzle, M.D., Ph.D., Cancer Center senior scientist and director of the Tissue Collection and Banking Facility, there are three models of tissue banking: simply collecting and storing available tissues, prospectively collecting based on a researcher’s specific criteria, and a combination of the two.
Until recently, UAB operated under the prospective model. “Scientists would come to us and want particular tissues, and we would collect those tissues according to their needs,” Dr. Grizzle says. “The advantage to that approach is that you collect only what is necessary, and you collect it just the way the investigator wants.”
The disadvantage, Dr. Grizzle notes, is time. If “you’re going to collect as you go along, it takes longer to collect specimens; there’s not a large availability of tumor samples immediately,” he says. And “if you’re focusing on clinical outcomes, there is a long period of time before that data is available.”
Meeting a Need
UAB was among the first institutions in the United States to recognize the importance of tissue samples to scientific research. Because of this, the Tissue Collection and Banking Facility has been providing tissue samples to UAB researchers for more than 30 years.
Biorepositories play such a critical role in research that Cancer Center director Edward Partridge, M.D., listed the development of a tissue bank among his priorities when he was named to the post in 2007. Two years later, Birmingham businessman and longtime Cancer Center supporter Caldwell Marks generously donated $200,000 to establish such a bank. Following renovations and the addition of state-of-the-art freezers and other storage equipment, the UAB Fluid and Tissue Bank opened in January of this year.
The bank’s office and processing lab are located on the first floor of The Kirklin Clinic®, where specialists see a majority of the Cancer Center’s outpatients. Most of those patients first hear about the opportunity to supply tissue samples from UAB’s patient navigators; the bank’s staff then ask the patients for their consent and collect urine and saliva samples. The Kirklin Clinic’s® clinical laboratory handles the blood collection, drawing enough to send some to the Tissue Collection and Banking Facility, located in the Zeigler Research Building a few blocks away, where it will be stored for use by researchers. “We try to get consent from all patients who come to Kirklin,” Dr. Grizzle says. “It’s entirely optional, but only about 5 percent or less say no.”
The impact of having such a facility in the heart of the Cancer Center’s clinical enterprise is significant, Dr. Grizzle says. “Cancer research really cannot move forward without having adequate numbers of human tissues to study,” he says. “For the first time, we’ll be able to meet investigators’ needs immediately, particularly for fluids, which are difficult to collect when they are fresh.”
Current funding will allow the bank to operate for about 18 months. By that time, Dr. Grizzle hopes to have built an adequate bank so that Cancer Center scientists and other UAB researchers will want to use the bank and help cover the its operating costs.
In addition, Dr. Grizzle and his team will continue to maintain the prospective collection of tissues for the Cancer Center and manage the tissue resources associated with the center’s various SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence) grants. UAB also is one of six institutions that supply tissues to investigators across the country through the national Cooperative Human Tissue Network, and the institution also serves as the biorepository for the Pulmonary Hypertension Breakthrough Initiative which collects, stores and distributes diseased lung tissue of pulmonary hypertension research.
“The better information we have on medicine in general, then the more effective our treatments for cancer will be,” Dr. Grizzle says. “We used to tell patients that the research done on their tissues today would help their children or their children’s children. But today science is moving so rapidly that this research could impact the patients’ own care.”