Friday, July 13, 2012

Biobanks: The Facebook of the Life Sciences?

Today's guest blog is contributed by Bart Reijs, Head of Global Support, Roche Diagnostics. He will be speaking at the 5th Annual Biorepositories and Sample Management Event this September as a part of the Clinical Business Expo. As a reader of this blog, when you register to join Bart and mention code XP1715BLOG, you'll save 15% off the standard rate!

With a projected market of US$22.3 billion by the year 2017 (i), biobanks represent a very welcome source of hope for the life sciences industry – which is otherwise struggling under the burden of expiring patents, increasing regulatory and payer scrutiny, and the extinction of the “blockbuster.” In 2009 Time Magazine listed biobanks as number 8 in the list of ideas remaking the global economy. No wonder private and public money alike is flowing superfluously into this market space while other parts of the industry suffer from constraints and stagnation.

In the year 2005 alone, an estimated 282 million samples from 176 million subjects were collected in repositories throughout the U.S. . And the number is steadily growing, by 20 million per year. The same is happening internationally: just last week the German government announced the buildup of a whole new biobank for 18 million Euros (iii)   . In 2009 in “The Ethics of Research Biobanking,” the authors suggested “a conservative estimate of the number of samples stored in repositories around the world exceeds 1 billion.”     So just imagine the number now – let alone the number to be stored by 2020.

Parallel to the silent rise of human sample banks, another repository made it big based on even more impressive numbers. With approximately one billion users, Facebook had a spectacular valuation of US$106.8 billion, leaving even the Winklevoss brothers with about $300 million extra in the bank.

So here we have two new phenomena with huge quantities of “subjects” leading to even more impressive valuations. But one question remains to be asked of both of these future-defining ideas: How is this projected value being achieved? For as it is unclear how Facebook will deliver on its promise, it likewise remains to be seen how biobanking will become a multi-billion-dollar market - and how it will save the life science industry.

No doubt the German study of 200.000 patients over a period of 10 to 20 years will deliver valuable insights. But over this time, the samples will cost money. Will we ever go back to test and find new markers in the stored samples that fresh samples won’t be able show? When testing a new diagnostic assay, finding residue samples is quicker than engaging doctors to find the patient population – but does this weigh against the millions spent on investment and operating costs? And we all hope to find answers to incurable devastating diseases like ALS or biomarkers for earlier detection of many other disorders, but exactly how are these going to add up to double digit sales and justify the investments versus alternatives such as targeted prospective sample collections? So considered, the biggest resemblance with Facebook is the challenge to define the business model with income stream. And therewith, to uphold the promise to investors.

(i) Biobanks, a global strategic business report, Global Industry Analysts INc, September 2011. MCP-6861.,
(ii) Harnessing the Benefits of Biobanks, Lori B. Andrews, JOURNAL OF LAW, MEDICINE & ETHICS, SPRING 2005
(iii) National biobanks for scientific research, 20 June 2012,
(iv) The Ethics of Research Biobanking, Edited by Jan Helge Solbakk et. al., New York, NY, Springer, 2009

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