Prof. Dr. Kurt Zatloukal
Prof. Dr. Kurt Zatloukal, Medical University of Graz, Austria

Kurt Zatloukal: New framework for global research collaboration

The increase in lifestyle and ageing-associated diseases that has paralleled a rise in drug development costs – along with the financial constraints of the global economy – is putting enormous pressure on the sustainability of healthcare systems.

These challenges can only be addressed by innovations for improved prevention and treatment of diseases that are based on scientific evidence. Biobanks are a key resource for delivering such solutions, as they provide access to human biological samples linked with detailed information on diseases and lifestyle. These resources are essential for a more mechanism-based understanding of diseases as a prerequisite for the further development of personalised medicine. After all, access to high-quality human samples is vital when it comes to supporting the development of molecular diagnostics, particularly companion diagnostics. Furthermore, to aid in better understanding gene-lifestyle interactions, large population-based cohort studies that contain information on lifestyle will help deliver a scientific basis for evidence-based disease prevention.

In order to address these needs, several European countries have made major investments in favour of biobanks. However, the challenges of providing sustainable healthcare are global rather than national issues. The need for action coordinated at the global scale is therefore obvious for many reasons. First, addressing the same problem in multiple non-coordinated approaches is neither efficient nor financially justified. Second, non-coordinated actions result in unnecessary duplication and – even worse – in non-compatible solutions that would undermine competitiveness in global biotech and the pharmaceutical industry.

The planning team of the European research infrastructure for biobanking and biomolecular resources (BBMRI) has developed the concept of a global network of expert centres to achieve global harmonisation in biobanking and bio­sample analysis. One rationale for the expert centres was to improve access to biobanks for industry and to avoid scenarios of sample commercialisation, which is illegal in Europe. Expert centres could be established as public-­private-partnerships that perform the analysis of biological samples using the latest technologies, and according to internationally harmonised procedures. Pre-competitive data generated in expert centres can be used by industry for product development, and will be made available to the public following procedures developed for the Innovative Medicines Initiative. Expert centres could also be established as public entities outside Europe to transform biological samples into high-quality data and information. This would avoid the need for transnational sample shipment in international research collaboration, thereby providing a new cooperation solution with countries that have legal restrictions on sample export. In addition, sample analysis in the country of origin would exert a strong positive stimulus on generating local know-how and regional development. However, such a global network of expert centres can only work if pre-analytical and analytical procedures are thoroughly standardised, and if expert centres share common reference material and regularly participate in proficiency testing. The first voluntary activities for testing the feasibility of the concept, with a focus on genomics, metabolomics and molecular pathology technologies, are currently in development.

Kurt Zatloukal

Kurt Zatloukal is Professor of Pathology at the Medical University of Graz, Austria. From 2008-2011 he coordinated the preparatory phase of the European research infrastructure for biobanking and biomolecular resources (BBMRI). Currently he is involved in several FP7 projects that focus on standardisation of molecular biosample analysis and is Director of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for biospecimen research and biobanking technologies.