Not everyone who works with biospecimens peers through microscopes or puts specimens through massive genome scans. Some, like Kathy O’Briant, work behind the scenes to make sure that appropriate specimens are used in the most innovative research studies.
O’Briant manages biospecimen distribution for the Pacific Ovarian Cancer Research Consortium (POCRC) at FHCRC, helping connect available specimens with researcher requests and serving as a liaison between Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and researchers.
It’s not as simple as it sounds. O’Briant’s background in laboratory work helps her understand exactly what researchers asking a biorepository for actually want, but she still dons many hats on the job.
In her manager role, she fields inquiries about specimen availability and helps provide clinical health information or statistician services to go along with the specimens. She must also make sure researchers have all protocols in place and have had their research approved through appropriate regulatory channels. She even goes to specimen review committees to provide explanations, or occasionally aliquots serum and plasma specimens personally.
The complexity of specimen requests varies depending on the researchers’ associated institutions and funding sources. In general, it take can anywhere from a few weeks to four months from requesting samples to receiving them. Paperwork and approvals take most of the time, as review committees ensure specimens are being used responsibly and ethically. Researchers may sometimes need to alter their proposed protocols or make other changes before securing approval.
O’Briant may occasionally learn what results the specimens helped achieve, particularly if researchers need updated specimen information.
“We have samples available, and we would love to have them used,” she says. Without requests, the specimens simply take up space. But with requests, tremendous advances have been made. O’Briant ticks them off: gene fusion protein identification that could lead to new diagnostic targets and therapies; MicroRNA that could aid in early detection; breast cancer advances.
“A cell line that has been growing in a culture dish,” she says, “is not the same as fresh tumor tissue. If we want to have new treatments, we have to have human samples.”
Another advantage of the repository effort is the ability to collect both tumor tissues and healthy tissues from the same population, meaning that case-control trials can be truly matched in terms of exposures and demographics, which reduces bias in the study design and results.
Researchers have managers like O’Briant to thank, along with patients, when they rely on human biospecimens in their research. It’s a big job, but one that needs to be done well if biospecimens are to help advance medicine.