Monday, July 9, 2012

Biorepositories Spotlight: Dr. Allison Hubel, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Today, we highlight one of the leading minds in the biorepositoreis field, Dr. Allison Hubel at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She recently sat down with us to discuss her background, her involvement in the Biopreservation Core Resource, and a few current topics touching biospecimens.
  1. 1. Can you please give an overview of your work and how biosample preservation technology makes it possible?
  2. I am the director of the Biopreservation Core Resource (BioCoR,, the nation’s only resource in biopreservation. BioCoR has three different resources: (1) an education and training resource in which we train people in the scientific principals of preservation and best practices; (2) a service resource in which people with problems in preservation come to us for help; and (3) a research resource which includes research programs in the development of the science and technology of preservation and a research consortium in which companies, government and academic pool resources on addressing issues related to preservation.

  3. 2. One of the major themes of the 2012 Biorepositories conference is maximizing biospecimen quality for the sake of drug development. In your own research on new therapeutics, what have you found to be the biggest risks to specimen quality and, eventually, to endpoint product quality? What are some techniques you’ve used to overcome these challenges?
  4. The greatest threat to specimen quality is ignorance. People frequently do not understand the critical element in the preservation process and the scientific basis for the steps in a protocol. We describe this as the ‘cold black box syndrome’. People believe that whatever is put into a cold environment is magically preserved in pristine condition or if there has been degradation, one has to accept the poor quality without the option to improve outcome. We are committed to training people and promoting the understanding of the preservation process.

  5. 3. Do you have a preferred method for tracking your specimens? If used during clinical research, have you found a method that also conveniently keeps track of informed consent status and specimen disease state? 
  6. Methods have to be fit-for-purpose and at least two independent methods of labeling should be used. A biospecimen without identification is largely useless and the cost involved in its collection and storage is lost. There are several wonderful systems available commercially and we have been impressed with both bar coding systems and RFID that have been developed for bags, vials and straws.

  7. 4. How can you best protect biospecimens from damage during the freezing process? Are there certain freezing methods or media that are most conducive to the work that you must do? Are you aware of any new technological advances that would allow you to possibly forgo freezing altogether? 
  8. Wonderful question. Once again, it depends upon the specimen and what you are attempting to preserve. For cells, it is critical to go step by step through the freezing process to determine the segments of the protocol that influence post thaw viability and then improve those segments. Current methods of preserving proteins in biospecimens do not use stabilizing agents (such as sugars) in spite of the fact that these additives have a demonstrated benefit. I envision that in the future, stabilizing agent will be added to fluid biospecimens. Dry state storage is important and because of the freeze sensitivity of certain proteins may be the only way to store certain biomarkers. We need a portfolio of options for storing biospecimens so that we can select the appropriate method for the biospecimen and the biomarker of interest.

  9. 5. What recent breakthroughs in this industry have impressed or excited you the most?  Investments in advancing biobanking are paying off in diverse aspects of the field.
  10. Just a couple of examples: (1) Picotubes: a heat sealed container capable of holding 70 ul of volume with 2-D barcodes; (2) nanopore-based technology for sequencing of DNA. Why these developments are exciting: high-quality, well-designed containers for biospecimens are still a tremendous concern. Poor/inconsistent outcome can result from using the wrong container. We need a toolkit of options that can be selected based on the purpose and these containers will have state-of-the-art identification and labeling systems. Nanopore-based technology for sequencing of nucleic acids is very exciting and could speed and reduce cost for sequencing considerably. It will however place specific challenges for the preservation of purified DNA. Current methods (freezing) result in fragmentation of DNA, which has not been a problem because current sequencing requires amplification. Nanopore-based sequencing will force improvement in preservation of DNA.

  11. 6. What breakthroughs or changes would you most want to see developed in the biospecimen sciences?
  12. Biospecimen science should be driving biomarker discovery (and not the other way around). The nanopore-based sequencing given above is an excellent example of emerging technology driving advances in biospecimen science. Biospecimen science needs to drive biomarker discovery and not just respond to advances in technology such as those described above. For example, biospecimen scientists need to advance preservation of biospecimens in such a manner that it enables individuals and organizations involved in biomarker discovery to pursue investigations that were not previously possible.

  13. 7. When you attend a conference such as the 2012 Biorepositories event, what do you most want to learn?
  14. I would like to learn about (1) new technologies; (2) new biomarker discovery strategies; and (3) limitations to biomarker discoveries based on the quality and availability of biospecimens.
For more insights from other leading professionals in the biorepositories and sample management, join us at the Clinical Business Expo September 19-20, with a pre-conference day of workshops on September 18. For more information on the Biorepositories program and the rest of the event, download the brochure here.  If you'd like to join us in Boston, when you register with code XP1725BLOG, you'll save 15% off the standard rate!

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