New platform launches to accelerate outbreak response through better access to human samples

November 21, 2023

A ‘virtual’ bank of human samples has just launched to improve researcher access to critical specimens for pandemic and outbreak research.

The collaborative system is called a virtual biobank as it facilitates access to existing collections of samples such as blood and cells through an online portal.

The virtual biobank was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic by the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on InfectiouS disease Emergencies (APPRISE) and was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. A description has just been published in Communicable Diseases Intelligence.

Dr Miranda Smith, a University of Melbourne academic specialist with APPRISE and based at the Doherty Institute, said the APPRISE Virtual Biobank for Infectious Diseases is the first step towards a more nationally co-ordinated biobanking effort for infectious diseases in Australia.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of research samples and the need for better ways to share samples to support urgent research across Australia.”

“Biobanks are expensive and challenging to set up, requiring extended consent from participants and careful management of both specimens and data. While some sophisticated biobanks exist in Australia, many infectious disease collections are small and specific to particular studies,” she said.

“The APPRISE Virtual Biobank is essentially a database that links existing sample collections, enabling researchers to search multiple collections at the same time for samples relevant to their research question. The Virtual Biobank then facilitates contact with the collection holders to apply for sample access.”

Dr Smith said quickly finding and accessing samples is essential to outbreak response, enabling important research questions to be addressed as the situation evolves. Important questions include the type and duration of the immune responses and the impact of vaccination and disease variants.

“COVID taught us that many small studies with different sample types resulted in a somewhat piecemeal view across Australia. While the samples collected are of high value, it is difficult to know what’s available to enable a broader and more coordinated understanding,” she said.

“The beauty of the virtual biobank is that Australian investigators will be able to search from a single location to identify samples of interest from multiple sources and then apply for access to the samples for their research. At the same time, the owners of the collections keep full control over how their samples are used.”

Biogrid Australia developed the technical architecture of the virtual biobank that currently has more than 58,000 samples from six different collections, with additional collections already being prepared for inclusion.

The initial participating collections willing to integrate with the APPRISE Virtual Biobank are:

  • ADAPT – a NSW study investigating the long-term impact of COVID-19
  • ASCOT – a clinical trial generating evidence about treatments for COVID-19
  • COSIN – Coronavirus Outbreak Samples in NSW, a study designed to investigate immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection
  • SETREP-ID – a research platform to rapidly detect and characterise emerging infectious diseases
  • Victorian Critical Vaccinees Collection (VC²) – a collection of samples from people vaccinated against pandemic diseases including COVID-19 and monkeypox in Victoria
  • Western Australian COVID-19 Immunity Collaborative (WACIC) Biobank – a research repository of samples and clinical information that will allow researchers to investigate immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

“The overarching aim was to create a platform enabling these valuable human samples to be more easily found and used to answer important research questions. Ultimately, the virtual biobank will support better use of existing resources and provide a sustainable platform for research to underpin responses to current and future infectious disease challenges.”