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Virtual biobank connects investigators across 8 UT institutions

Published: February 10, 2020 by UT System

Assorted health images, such as DNA strand, EKG report, stethoscope, a smartphone showing a health app, two scientists in white coats and one man in jeans and sweater
A new biobank will help researchers connect. The platform is open to all faculty, students, and staff at participating UT institutions,

A new resource is now available to connect investigators across eight institutions of The University of Texas System. 

Through the UT System Health Biobank (UTSHB) Consortium, investigators can view information related to participants and biospecimens collected by participating investigators at member institutions. Once studies of interest are identified, investigators begin the request process through the UTSHB Consortium. 

Major goals of the initiative are to enable sharing collection inventories, standardizing future biospecimens and data collection, and creating cost-effective and automated best practices for biobank operations across all participating UTSHB Consortium institutions. 

The new virtual biobank is an online platform connecting researchers with biospecimens and related data consented for sharing to other researchers seeking these for use in their research. The biobank is restricted to institutions within UT System, including: UTHealth Houston, UT Health San Antonio, UT Southwestern Medical Center, UTMB Health, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, UT Rio Grande Valley, UTHealth Tyler, and UT Austin. 

Key individuals involved in the initiative include Raymond Greenberg, MD, PhD, original UT System sponsor; Eric Boerwinkle, PhD; Jennifer E. Sanner Beauchamp, PhD, RN; Benjamin Greenberg, MD; Robin Leach, PhD; Michael Laposata, MD, PhD; Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS; Victor Prieto, MD, PhD; Anna Kurdowska, PhD, MS; and Andrew Tsin, PhD. 

“The UTSHB network will speed scientific discovery and translation of these findings into patient care, and will make the research of UT faculty more competitive for grant funding,” said Raymond Greenberg, former UT System executive vice chancellor for health affairs. 

The platform is open to all faculty, students, and staff at participating UT institutions, with the expectation that it will be most useful to faculty and graduate students. 

“This UT System-wide biobank is not only a great resource for biomedical researchers at the UTSHB institutions, but it positions Texas as a top leader in discovery research across the country,” said Boerwinkle, dean of UTHealth School of Public Health. “Texas is a big state and a diverse state, so the potential of this new initiative is enormous.” 

The biobank amplifies the resources of each UT institution into collective research power.

“By transforming multiple local biobanks into a cohesive and consistent system, researchers will be able to conduct their research using larger sample sizes and data sets,” said Beauchamp, associate professor of research at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth. “The end result will be improved research effectiveness and quality, and faster translation of discoveries to directly benefit patients.” 

Researchers may also be interested in some of the biodata that comes with the samples, including 40 to 50 common data elements associated with the specimen, including gender, race, educational background, and other data points.

“This effort is not only about infrastructure, but also about science,” Beauchamp said. “By researchers more efficiently communicating and sharing biospecimens, related data, and ideas, we can foster discoveries in translational science and ultimately provide patients with better management and treatment of common and rare diseases.” 

Laposata, professor and chair of pathology at UTMB Health, noted the UTSHB initiative will help make samples from patients with even the rarest diseases available to multiple institutions. 

“UTMB, for example, can build and share a sample collection of rare infectious diseases while expanding new areas of research excellence by using samples from diseases, such as cancer, that are collected largely from other UT institutions,” Laposata said.

Other resources available through the UTSHB Consortium include:

  • Standard operating procedures for collecting and processing various biospecimens
  • Definition of Common Data Elements as used in the UTSHB Consortium
  • A template for setting up studies in REDCap to use the UTSHB Consortium Common Data Elements
  • Informed consent language to support sharing
  • Information on setting up and using electronic informed consent
  • Universal material/data transfer agreements for use across all UT institutions
  • Training material and information related to training options.

Researchers can access the UTSHB Consortium website or contact utshb@utsystem.edu for more information.

Faith Harper, communications specialist in the UTHealth Houston Office of Public Affairs, contributed to this report.

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