The international biobank era

Publié le : 16 June 2014

 Biobanks – resource centres specialising in human tissues – are being organised into networks and equipped with increasingly sophisticated technologies. An article in Le Monde on “Le corps mondialisé” focuses on this mechanism created for the purposes of personalised medicine. 

The Graz Public Hospital (Austria) has housed the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) – the European biobank co-ordination centre – since 2011. It holds 20 million human samples (tissues, blood, urine, plasma and cell lines, etc.) with an even greater potential since 200 million samples are estimated to be stored in European hospitals. These samples are preserved and provided, free of charge, to researchers working in the public sector or pharmaceutical laboratories. Nine countries were initially involved: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands and Sweden. Now, thirty or so countries are participating. 

“The aim is to produce more effective, less expensive medicinal products for health care, which will be better suited to patients. Biobanks are the tool of ‘tailor-made medicine’ thanks to an increasingly refined knowledge of diseases and predicted treatment responses (efficacy, safety) based on gender, lifestyle and ethnic and genetic factors”.


The pooling of scientific tools and networking were long, arduous tasks particularly because of the virtually impossible standardisation of sample archiving methods. This is especially true since the data are supposed to be anonymous (Gènéthique press review on June 9th, 2014 sur l’enjeu de l’open data). Sociologist, Herbert Gottweis (University of Vienna), analyses this system of biobanks as a fragmentation of the human body which ends up by reconstituting itself into a “virtual global body” in an attempt to treat the real body.


There are two huge biobanks at international level: the private American Company, 23andMe, which has the DNA of approximately 1 million people due to the genetic tests it offers, and the Chinese BIJ (Beijing Genomics Institute), which publishes 17 to 20 articles every year in the major journals.


In France, the brain bank at Pitié-Salpétrière, the GIE Neuro-CEB, holds tens of brain samples identified by an anonymous number and excised at autopsy. This “brain bank” was created in 2006. Given the shortage of brains for study purposes, the Medical Academy recommended in January 2014 that “authorisation for post-mortem organ donation for transplants should be extended to brain donations to assist research”.  Similarly, at international level, Ethics Committees are reflecting on broader consent procedures*.


* N.B. Gènéthique: This reflection is reminiscent of the note issued by the INSERM Ethics Committee on 17 June 2014 on Conditions surrounding embryo research and proposals in this direction concerning couples’ donations of their “spare” embryos created within the scope of a MAP programme.

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