By David Crosby, Programme Manager, MRC

Published: 20 February 2017

Last month we invited applications for a £5-million pot of capital investment to partner with charities to establish or enhance human tissue banks and linked data. Katherine Nightingale spoke to MRC Programme Manager Dr David Crosby about the role of charities in tissue banking and what we’re looking for from charity partners.

Why do we need tissue banks?

Tissue banking is a really important area for research. If you want to understand the mechanisms of human disease and identify appropriate targets for new treatments, then tissue from patients with a particular disease is a fantastic resource. You can study the disease processes in cellular form, screen therapies, develop diagnostics and validate what you’ve learned from other research such as animal studies.

What’s the purpose of this investment?

Tissue banking isn’t cheap and it’s logistically complex. We’re making a one-off investment to fund tissue bank infrastructure. This includes the people, equipment and facilities required to collect, characterise, curate and store the tissue and its associated data, and make it accessible to the research community.

The awards will concentrate on areas of existing strength either in tissue banking or in important lines of research that can benefit from tissue banking.

Applicants will need to describe how a proposed tissue bank will catalyse new science through new tissue banking and data linkage approaches.

Why are partnerships with charities so important?

Working with charities is core to what we’re trying to achieve, not least because charities are great at building communities of patients and engaging them with science.

Because tissue banks are infrastructural resources, you can’t explain to patients exactly how samples are going to be used. Patients consent for their tissue to be used for unspecified research in the future because they are engaged with science and believe research is valuable – it’s not like asking people to participate in a clinical trial where there may be a clear and immediate benefit to them.

Many charities have identified tissue banking as a priority and have invested a lot of funding in them already. If we align our efforts, the MRC with the charities, then the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. We can draw together and consolidate fragmented existing investments.

Is this just about building on existing banks?

Not necessarily, though given the limited amount of funds available, we’re not going to be able to build standalone banks from scratch.

You can think of it from two angles. There might be an existing bank or banks that we can consolidate and enhance. This could mean increasing the reach of tissue collection, boosting technological capabilities to characterise the tissue or improving data infrastructure and linkage to make a richer resource for research.

Alternatively, researchers could apply to add a new tissue banking resource to an existing research initiative or centre of excellence that is already collecting patient samples. Adding a biobank would create a piece of infrastructure for the whole community.

What kind of commitment do you expect from charity partners?

All of these partnerships – whether they are academic or charity-driven – must be a genuine collaboration. We get that medical research charities vary in size and wealth, and we know that the sizes of patient populations differ – some diseases are rarer than others.

We want any interested charity to be eligible, so we’re not putting any prohibitive requirements for matched funding in place. Partnerships can take many different forms, all of which might be valuable, such as galvanising a patient community or building a critical mass of researchers to ensure a tissue bank is used.

Charities might also get involved by attesting their interest in funding research that uses a bank, or in funding a bank in the longer term. And, of course, charities are welcome to commit new funding to a proposal alongside MRC investment.

This is a one-time investment from us and we’ll want applicants to talk about how they see a bank being sustainable, both in maintaining the tissue and data, but also in recruiting and developing the people necessary to support both of those activities.

Are there any diseases or bank types that will be prioritised?

No. The main criterion is that a proposal is unique and adds value to existing resources, in terms of catalysing new science. So small charities in rare disease areas shouldn’t be put off.

We’re also entirely supportive of consortia-driven approaches. Multiple charities might group around one bank, for example, or funding might be sought for multi-tissue banks which cross traditional charity boundaries. These might be appropriate where different diseases affect the same organ, a single disease affects multiple types of tissue, or different diseases share similar processes.

Why is this money being made available now?

This has come directly from the Department for Innovation, Business and Skills consultation on capital investment in science and research. The message came back from charities that biobanking was important. So this is the charities’ voices being heard and acted upon – we hope to receive a lot of interest!

The deadline for outline proposals is 27 March 2017. Please direct questions regarding the call to [email protected] .