Could you tell us a little bit more about IBBL?
IBBL, which stands for Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg, is a non-profit institute that provides a biobanking infrastructure and bioservices for applied medical research. We collect, process, analyze and store biological samples and associated data. Our growing collection contains samples from human blood, tissue, urine, saliva and stool, which are used for research on cancer, diabetes or neurodegeneration. Another key role we have is to optimize biospecimen processing and qualify biospecimens. In summary, with our collection and our expertise in handling biospecimens, we’ve become a valued partner for academia and industry, helping in developing better healthcare solutions.
How did you first get involved with biospecimen research and what is your role at IBBL?
Over 10 years ago, when I worked at another biobank, we had the first audit for our certification. When the auditor asked us how we could certify the quality of our biospecimens, we had no answer. That just made it clear to me that we had to invest time and resources into biospecimen research, if we wanted biobanking to become a real discipline that could improve biomedical research as a whole. So I became very involved in biospecimen research and chaired the corresponding working group of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER). Today, as Chief Scientific Officer of IBBL, I continue on this path. I oversee IBBL’s biospecimen research, IBBL’s Proficiency Testing programme, and, of course, all of our laboratory processes. In addition, I am involved in the organization and teaching of a continuing education course on biobanking.
What is biospecimen research?
It’s about finding the best ways to handle a given biospecimen to ensure its quality or fitness-for-use in downstream applications. By studying the impact on downstream results of pre-analytical variations during collection, processing and storage, we learn how to preserve sample quality and integrity. That way, we can eliminate pre-analytical bias and make sure that the differences in gene expression or proteins between samples are real biological differences, not differences due to processing or analysis.
Could you tell us something about the quality challenges of biobanking fixation and retrieval, particularly with FFPE methods?
Biomedical research increasingly relies on archives with high-quality preserved biospecimens for future applications. To maintain molecular content, researchers need to stabilize the specimen to stop biomolecule degradation caused by pre-analytical handling steps — like fixation, transportation, processing and paraffin embedding. Companies like QIAGEN help address these challenges by providing complete solutions to improve tissue fixation, retrieval, and analysis. We have evaluated and shown the compatibility of the QIAGEN-PreAnalytiX PAXgene Tissue System with clinical Immunohistochemistry.
What kind of customers and partners is IBBL closely involved with and what achievements is IBBL most proud of?
As a biobank, IBBL works very closely with clinicians on one hand, and researchers on the other hand. Through our biospecimen research and our bioservices offer, we collaborate with international research institutes, clinical research organizations, and pharmaceutical companies. We also work closely with our industrial partners, like QIAGEN, for the evaluation of products and equipment and the development of new or optimized workflows. Finally, IBBL is part of several large EU research consortia, like the IMI Cancer-ID project. Participating in this highly competitive EU grant with our partners was a very proud moment. But I think our proudest achievement, would be our ISO 17025 accreditation, which we have just received. So, IBBL is now one of only a handful of biobanks in the world to be ISO accredited for its competence as a testing laboratory.
How do you validate a biospecimen processing method?
Beyond optimization, processing-method validation is essential for quality management. And in biobank labs, this is particularly important for automated handling. In fact, it’s a normative requirement for accreditation. Although many labs validate testing methods, unfortunately that’s not the case for processing methods. We’ve published a series of processing-method validations for biospecimens. In our latest paper, we compared and optimized methods for automating the extraction of nucleic acids from whole blood. We then validated them on reproducibility, robustness and fitness-for-purpose. In the end, we concluded that automated isolation of RNA with silica-based technologies on the QIAcube or BioRobot Universal System is feasible, reproducible, and robust, giving good yields of RNA suitable for all downstream analyses.
How do you control the quality of biospecimens?
Each biospecimen in a prospective collection should be annotated with information about how it was collected and processed. This can be done by using the “Standard PREanalytrical Code”, the so-called SPREC code. For legacy collections, where this has not been done, you can verify the quality of your sample by implementing appropriate Quality Control assays. You can evaluate a nucleic acid purity or integrity with instruments like the QIAxcel Advanced System, which we have shown in a publication to be a very robust and high-throughput tool for RNA integrity measurement. Quality Control assays also allow you to identify samples that are compromised based on incorrect handling, for example during extraction, culture or cryopreservation.
Why is EQA – External Quality Assessment – important for biobanks?
Biobanks and really anyone working with human biospecimens, should make use of EQA tools like Proficiency Testing programs to verify the precision, accuracy and efficiency of their methods. By regularly taking part in such programs, labs can compare and benchmark their performance, verify consistency, comply with certification and accreditation requirements, and gain more credibility and visibility.
In the future, where do you see the most potential for IBBL?
Biobanking has an exciting future because centralized biobanks can ensure standardization with optimized and validated protocols. IBBL offers a biobanking infrastructure to consortia and clinical trials, but also centralized laboratory services for sample qualification, enabling greater accuracy of analyses and reliable retrospective analyses. Another area of big potential for IBBL is the services we offer to suppliers for method validation of novel equipment, processing and storage methods, or stabilizers.