Heart attacks and strokes are leading causes of death around the world, and many are caused by atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque on the walls of blood vessels. The best way to fully understand how atherosclerosis develops and progresses is by studying plaques from human tissues.
Biobanks, or tissue registries, are collections of human biospecimens from the people who consented to donate their aborted tissues for research. For example, the Bruce McManus Cardiovascular Biobank (BMCB) at the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation (HLI) contains over 14,000 cases of specimens from hearts, blood vessels, and other cardiovascular tissues. These specimens were collected from autopsies and cardiac surgeries.
Recent advances in technologies like next-generation sequencing present new opportunities for more in depth studies on the molecular features of atherosclerosis, especially in biobanked specimens. In a review published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, Dr. Ying Wang, a Principal Investigator at HLI and Director of the BMCB, led a discussion on how to leverage biobank resources for translational research. From genetic studies supported by large biobanks to proof-of-concept studies that have changed the traditional view of atherosclerosis using only a dozen of biobanked samples, Dr. Wang’s group summarized a few formulas for both basic and clinical scientists to utilize biobank resources.
Dr. Wang’s group also outlines some major roadblocks for translating biobanking research to new biomarkers and therapies for atherosclerosis. These include the lack of bioinformatics or data analysis tools to interpret omics data, especially in the tissue context, as well as the difficulty of making connections between features found in the plaque and blood-based biomarkers, which are more appropriate for clinical testing.
To address these challenges, more collaborations between biobanks and between researchers are needed to link complementary resources and datasets so that results from individual studies can be validated to benefit broader patient populations. Sample collection and storage protocols also need to be updated to ensure that sample quality is appropriate for new downstream technologies and applications. Overcoming these challenges will maximize the utilization of precious human biospecimens, and will reveal important biological information on the underlying mechanisms of atherosclerosis, leading to better therapies and improved outcomes for patients.