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Could Biobanks be the New Frontier for Digital Health Research?

Avatar By Praduman "PJ" Jain (Founder and CEO, Vibrent Health) | December 17, 2020

One of the truly rewarding parts of my job is interacting with a broad eco-system involved in health research, which has allowed me to gain invaluable insights through close collaborations with research, academic, government and industry partners. One important topic that comes up often is the current and future role of biobanks. Through our role as the technology provider for studies involving biobanks, we’re in the unique position to observe how biobanks can maintain and increase their relevance, continually adding value to health research organizations while redefining their role in helping people achieve better health.

Having mastered the process of collecting biosamples, such as human blood and tissue for research and clinical care applications, biobanks have proven their vital role in developing deeper knowledge about diseases and helping find new approaches to prevention and cures.

The biobank market is showing no signs of slowing, with both academic and industry-focused analysts estimating seemingly limitless growth potential. According to Grand View Research, the global biobanks market size was estimated at $52.31 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach $74 Billion by 2025.

For all their progress, however, biobanks interactions remain largely a “one-time occurrence” as biosamples are collected from a specific cohort and then stored. Of course, this should not be understated as these physical samples are incredibly valuable, and viable, long-term research assets.

But there is an opportunity for biobanks to do even more.  

As we see a shift toward precision medicine—treatment and research methodologies based on individuals’ genes, environment, lifestyle and behaviors—these opportunities can expand exponentially.

One of the more significant contributions of digital health research over the past few decades is in the field of genomics. We’re all born with a unique gene expression that shapes us as human beings. We have no control over this predetermined physical “signature.” However, there are ways to control its effects on long-term health and well-being, for example, by adapting and modifying our environment, lifestyle and behaviors.

By adding these factors to clinical data, a more holistic picture of a person takes form. Through their stored samples, biobanks can help us gain an even greater understanding of the relationship among ancestry, personality traits and risk factors. This can lead to biobanks ensuring their status as a major player in health research.  

But first we must shift our mindset and think of biobanks beyond collections and storage, adopting an approach based on a longitudinal lifecycle of research.

Health research is a continuous process, with clinical trials occurring more frequently each year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) tracked the number of studies as increasing from 181,305 in 2014 to 262,445 in 2017, with large ongoing cohort studies related to precision medicine cited as a key factors driving the trend of biobanks becoming both population-based and disease-oriented.

The Journal of Translational Medicine notes this integration of biological and geographical data enables research groups to collect information that could identify possible therapeutic strategies for the long-term well-being of a specific group.

Identifying and recruiting the right pool of clinical labor is time-consuming and potentially expensive. Think of the potential for longitudinal research if biobanks were to continually engage over time with the people who are already enrolled in a cohort and have donated samples.

This idea also benefits the biobanks’ retention of participants. Retaining a cohort makes it easier for the biobank to come back to people over a longer period to conduct additional research. By simply staying in touch with participants through a postcard or email or bringing them to an event once or twice a year, both biobanks and participants build a mutually beneficial relationship based on value.

Biobanks are also regional and as a result, many already enjoy a high level of trust within their communities. This allows them to expand their reach by building better prospect lists of recruits for future health research efforts. If biobanks continually broaden their prospective field of cohort participants—and even combine data sets from different cohorts—they will demonstrate a higher level of health research innovation, a key factor when applying for grants, for biobanks and their clients.

This lifecycle approach is no different from traditional product marketing, where terms like outreach, awareness, retention and prospecting are common. In this instance, the return on the marketing investment for biobanks would be more funding opportunities.

Not only limited to academic research, biobanks are also making a real difference in people’s lives. I was struck by a story I came across about one doctor’s efforts to establish and maintain the first Down syndrome biobank in America. This news drove home the direct impact biobanks can have on people and families dealing with potentially heart-breaking decisions regarding their children. And the doctor was awarded $275,000 for additional research.

A story like this provides even more tangible proof that biobank collaborations have the potential to innovate health research . . . and do good for society.

The good news is the latest technology to achieve this potentiality is at our disposal.

No different from our daily personal lives, technology is the basis of every professional field including health research. The move toward electronic consent forms eliminates mountains of paper and creates more efficient and trackable records-keeping. The rise of app-based research and virtual clinical studies ties into the mobile devices we use every day: smartphones, tablets and laptops, making personal health information easier to collect and share.

Digital health solutions platforms provide the technological foundation for helping researchers fully utilize biobanks while increasing the relevance of biobanks, growing and diversifying their cohort registry and sharpening their competitive advantage. The benefits of this technology range even further, from real-time analytics and customizable reporting to data-driven, personalized digital marketing and communications strategies to help organizations find and retain participants.

Our industry is based on the principles of service, care and healing, and equally important is the principle of strategic collaboration. Working together, we can all open the door to new opportunities.