Patients with cancer can now donate their tissues and blood samples for scientific research at a new national biobank, which opened its doors yesterday.

It is hoped that onCore UK – funded by Cancer Research UK, the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council – will eventually offer a world-class archive of cancer tissue samples, and the group says it will work with its counterparts in the UK to streamline access to archives already in existence.

Brian Clark, chief executive of onCore, explained that the biobank was “set up both to help facilitate cancer research in the UK and to meet the desire expressed by people with cancer to help. Many patients want to do something to support research into their disease and to help others in the future.”

There are around 20-30 cancer sample banks in the UK at the moment but, as a spokeswoman for Cancer Research explained to PharmaTimes UK News, “access to many of the existing banks is relatively difficult because the samples have a predefined use or are seen as scarce because numbers are small, so access if often restricted.”

Open and available

The difference with onCore, she explained, it that the charity is not a research institution, hospital or university and has no internal interest in using the samples, “hence its role is to facilitate the journey of the samples from donor patients to the bank and on to researchers.” Furthermore, she said, the samples are largely collected with no specific project in mind (no prior claim in other words) so they should be more open and available for access.

Initially, only patients in selected National Health Service trusts – currently Portsmouth and Southampton - can donate their cells, although onCore hopes this will eventually extend to the rest of the UK. “The charity is in discussions with several other trusts in other parts of the country and its is hoped that we can extend the collection areas gradually to cover a wider population,” the spokeswoman told PharmaTimes UK News.

onCore UK was keen to stress that patients’ donations will be stored securely and made available quickly to researchers across the UK who can demonstrate how the samples can help their research. Furthermore, it says, researchers will have access to information about patients’ medical histories, but their identities will be kept anonymous.

Researchers will be granted entry to the biobank “as soon as sufficient numbers of samples are in the bank and the details of the access policy and practices are defined,” the spokeswoman said, adding: “It is hoped that this might be as early as sometime in 2008.”

'Cornerstone' of research

The demand for access to biological samples is growing fast as scientists strive to deepen their understanding of cancer as well as develop new therapies and cures. As Professor Herbie Newell, director of translational research at Cancer Research UK, explains: “Samples of tissue and body fluids from patients are fast becoming the cornerstone of cancer research. Analysing them helps us unravel how and why cells become cancerous. They play a vital and increasingly important role in the development and testing of new treatments for the disease.”

“Archives like this are crucial in the fight against cancer. Enabling scientists to access the high quality samples they need will help speed the pace of research into cancer in the UK,” he concludes.

According to CR UK, around 270,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed every year. Although recent figures suggest we are slowly winning the battle against this disease, with overall survival rates almost doubling in the last 30 years in the UK, there is still a long way to go.