Guest Column

VARI’s biorepository provides tools for discovery

January 2, 2015
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Grand Rapids is a city on the rise — a city that continues to reinvent itself and redefine its potential. It also houses a community that is working to combat some of the major human disease threats of our time, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

As a professor and director of the Program for Technologies and Cores at Van Andel Research Institute, I have had the unique opportunity to witness the birth of Grand Rapids’ expansive Medical Mile, and it has been a privilege to contribute to the dynamic growth within this robust corridor of health care and medical research. VARI continues to collaborate with local partners to develop best practices that serve the needs of our clinical and research communities, and help give hope to those living with cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.

Biomedical research requires a significant amount of input, including the intellectual capital of scientists, strong leadership, and generous funding from grants and philanthropy. The urgency of our mission also requires that scientists have access to biological material and information they can use to gain new knowledge and unique insights into their specific areas of study and bolster their applications for grant funding. One area rich with this kind of information is VARI’s biorepository.

Biorepositories store patient-donated tissues and biological specimens along with connected data like medical histories. The knowledge held within these tissue samples is an essential component to biomedical research and can be the foundation for the development of novel diagnostics and treatments.

An example of the importance of biorepositories can be found in the search for biomarkers, molecules in the body that are indicative of a disease. Tissues stored in biorepositories allow scientists access to the samples they need to search for biomarkers, which may give us new ways to detect the target disease earlier and more accurately. Unfortunately, the demand for well-documented biological specimens currently outpaces the availability of such samples, which presents a major obstacle to scientists addressing the health issues of the 21st century.

VARI’s biorepository was made possible thanks to a collaboration with Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, a West Michigan hospital within the national Trinity Health system, along with Holland Hospital and the developing Great Lakes Biorepository Research Network.

The Institute’s biorepository serves a vital role in the region’s clinical and biomedical research community by providing access to a plethora of tumor samples that can give scientists unique insight into different types of cancer. Through this partnership (and with patient consent), Mercy Health Saint Mary’s collects biospecimens and approved data, and transfers this information to VARI’s Program for Biospecimen Science. The Institute then processes and stores these specimens, giving clinicians and scientists access to vital biological resources.

Although the samples held in the biorepository are important to the Institute’s research, they also play an integral role in clinical trials and the development of new diagnostics and therapies at affiliated institutions in West Michigan and across the country. Our biorepository has been designated as the only Comprehensive Biospecimen Resource for the Cancer Human Biobank (caHUB) of the Biorepositories Research Branch at the National Cancer Institute, and was an early recipient of the College of American Pathologists Biorepository Accreditation Program, which is growing rapidly nationally. The VARI biorepository has also been the specimen and biobanking system for the collection of patient tissues for the Multiple Myeloma Foundation’s coMMpass Trial that is conducting a longitudinal study on the molecular characteristics of that cancer from more than 1,000 patients. Most recently, the VARI biorepository will house the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance biobank, a rare disease biobank that will help coalesce research opportunities to find better treatments for patients with this disease.

Access to information and a supportive infrastructure are some of the elements that have helped grow a thriving human health corridor in Grand Rapids. The Institute is a proud member of a community where human health is not only a source of economic sustainability and forward momentum, but also one of hope. Our biorepository is only one of many important engines of discovery that can be found along the city’s Medical Mile, but it is emblematic of our community’s desire to advance the understanding of cancer and other diseases, and to move the needle of humanity forward.

Scott Jewell, Ph.D., is professor and director, Program for Technologies & Cores, Van Andel Research Institute.

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