Australia needs bigger and better brain biobank: researchers


By Mardi Chapman

17 May 2021

It’s time to take a bigger, broader and more structured approach to brain banking in order to maximise research outcomes in neurological and other diseases, Australian researchers say.

According to a Perspective article in The MJA by Dr Amanda Rush and Associate Professor Greg Sutherland, “a next generation brain bank could be integrated into multipurpose biobanking initiatives.”

“Although brain donor programs already strive to maximise the clinical and demographic information available for each participant, an integrated brain bank could extend their involvement to more comprehensive clinical data collection, generation and analysis,” they said.

“This would make samples and derivatives such as serum, DNA, images and genetic/-omic data available for researchers, in addition to brain tissue.”

The article references the UK BioBank which, since the start of recruitment in 2006, has amassed medical and genetic data including biological samples and test measurements, from about 500,000 adult participants.

“In this scenario, the brain bank could remain responsible for the characterisation and provision of brain-related tissue and data, but be just one component in an integrated resource that characterises the lifespan of an individual donor,” the authors said.

Associate Professor Sutherland, director of the NSW Brain Tissue Resource Centre in the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, told the limbic that scientists were naturally siloed thinkers.

“I think brain banking could be accused of doing that, but by being bigger you open up capacity to a lot more stakeholders,” he said.

“Classically, neuropathology has been its own game and its own sub-specialty and people are very precious about that but I felt that we could get away from that with wider biobanking initiatives.”

He said Australia could not reproduce the scale of the UK BioBank but could offer something complementary.

“Because if you are complementary to somewhere else, you are helping them and they are helping you and by doing something slightly different, you are opening up new avenues of discovery,” he said.

“We’ve got to do it because in 20 years time, this will be a really good idea.”

Associate Professor Sutherland, whose research interests include alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease, said there were barriers to implementation of broader “brain and body” biobanking.

“What stops that here, notwithstanding the privacy issue about e-health so far, is the fact that we need unique identifiers. We need a unique identifier for people that would allow for even unforeseen synergies between various diseases.”

“The big challenge is convincing people that the reasons are altruistic…to understand complex problems which a lot of these non-communicable diseases are. Incredibly complex.”

He said a plethora of biobanks had been set up and disbanded over the years reinforcing the need to move away from a piecemeal approach to something more structured. Funding also had to be more sustainable than relying on enabling or project grant funding.

“We’re saying that human brain tissue is an important part of understanding human brain diseases and we’re also saying that human brain diseases are not necessarily just brain diseases.”

For example, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s had beyond-the-brain components while in turn, conditions such as diabetes had central connections.

“There are practical reasons for trying to use those other tissues and to work back and forth is a good idea. Is there an opportunity to bring those things together?”

“There is not necessarily a clear strategy about how Australia should go about a wider biobanking initiative or whether there is the will to do it.”


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