Supporting science, a sample at a time

Biorepositories are a vital part of modern biomedical research 


Science can’t happen without samples.

Comprising healthy and diseased tissues, blood, saliva and other materials, these biological specimens allow scientists to investigate how our bodies work when they’re healthy, how they change when affected by disease, and how we can better prevent, predict, diagnose and treat conditions such as cancer and Parkinson’s.

That’s why it is incredibly important that biological samples be treated with the utmost care and consistency from start to finish. It’s a mammoth task, both in scope and complexity, that requires specialized expertise in a number of disciplines.

Enter biorepositories.

In a broad sense, biorepositories are storehouses for biological samples (also called biospecimens). But they are so much more than that. Biorepositories, and the dedicated scientists who staff them, are responsible for collecting, processing, cataloging and storing samples, and ensuring that their use is consistent with ethical standards.

Helping at home and beyond
Here at the Institute, we’re fortunate to have our own Biorepository on-site that houses more than 150,000 frozen specimens and approximately 1,000,000 fixed specimens. It has a major impact on research in Grand Rapids, as well as across the U.S. and abroad, thanks in part to involvement with several large-scale, collaborative projects spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other leading research groups.

Here’s a quick sample of some of the projects aided by the Institute’s Biorepository:

The Biorepository’s commitment to excellence is reflected in its accreditation by the College of American Pathologists (CAP), the world’s largest organization of board-certified pathologists and leading provider of laboratory accreditation and proficiency testing programs. In early July, VARI’s accreditation was renewed following successful inspection by CAP (read more here).

How do biorepositories work? Let’s run through the basics.
A sample of a tumor, let’s say lung cancer, is obtained from a patient after they give consent for the sample to be taken and used for research purposes. The tumor sample is then delivered to a biorepository using a kit specially designed for its transfer. The physical sample is accompanied by de-identified information such as age and sex of the patient, medical history and presence of other diseases. This information gives scientists important context when using the sample in a study (for example, in lung cancer, it is vital to know whether or not the patient was a smoker as this has a major impact on many aspects of the disease).

Once there, scientists at the biorepository prepare the sample for cataloging and storage. For solid tumors like lung cancer, this may include sectioning, meaning the tumor is sliced into translucent sheets and fixed to a glass slide, or staining, meaning a dye is applied to the sample that changes the color of certain components such as proteins. For liquid samples, such as blood, saliva or urine, preservatives may be added and the sample may be portioned out into equal amounts called aliquots. There are different processing measures for each sample type but the end result is largely the same — the samples are carefully divided and preserved for future use.

Next, the samples are stored. Often, this involves freezing, or cryo-preservation, which helps keep the samples in a usable state for a long period of time. When needed, a scientist can apply to access these samples. A scientist may seek access to a large number of samples in order to compare similarities and differences between tumors from different patients and samples of healthy lung tissue. When paired with the de-identified demographic and health information that accompanied the samples to the biorepository, the scientist has a powerful tool to investigate the potential causes of a specific disease on a large-scale.

Biorepositories also can house immortalized cell lines, which are cells that have experienced a change that allows them to continually reproduce. These cell lines are a critical part of modern biomedical research because they allow scientists to use copies of the same cells across many experiments, eliminating a major variable that can skew results.

Learn more about the Institute’s Biorepository here.

Please note: VARI does not have a program specifically for organ and body donation. Many hospitals and universities do have these donation programs; however, the process can be lengthy and costly. We recommend consulting those organizations as early as possible to discuss your options.

The Institute’s Biorepository does accept tumor tissue samples according to specific guidelines. If you would like to donate tumor tissue to VARI, please consider discussing the option with your physician and ask him or her to reach out to Core Director Dr. Scott Jewell.