Challenges in Specimen Procurement
Hold Back Progress
Mandates to keep biospecimens in house are among the factors
inhibiting better specimen sharing today.
By Dr. Christopher J. Ianelli, iSpecimen
In 2018, it has become radically easy for readers to procure books, travelers to reserve hotel rooms, and singles to arrange dates. All the consumer needs are a phone and an app, and
the Internet does the rest.
But in biomedicine, an industry employing
some of the smartest people on the planet, it’s
still difficult for researchers to find the human
biospecimens they need from the patients they
want in order to conduct research leading to
Unfortunately, biospecimen procurement has long
required researchers to cobble together specimen
collections from different labs, hospitals, and
biobanks around the country or beyond.
Researchers typically work by email, phone, and
complicated forms to obtain biobanked biofluids,
tissue, or cells that will help them to develop next-
generation diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.
In addition to being laborious, time-consuming,
and costly, this procurement approach has typically
failed to produce the quantity, quality, and specific
types of specimens that researchers need.
This missed opportunity is especially costly in
the age of precision medicine when data extracted
from large volumes of specimens identifies critical
molecular pathways, biomarkers, and other biologic
insights that can lead to surprising therapies.
Precision medicine also has made the specimen
procurement challenge more complex, since
researchers now need samples with unprecedented
Researchers Limit Scope of Their Work
Because of the difficulties that plague a researcher’s
ability to procure high-quality specimens, four out
of five researchers in one National Cancer Institute
study reported limiting the scope of their work.
Other researchers may even fail to realize they are
constrained: By institutional habit or policy, they
design their research around the samples that exist
in their own organization’s biobank.
But the supply is there. It is estimated that there
are more than 400 million biospecimen samples
currently held within more than 800 United States
biorepositories. The majority of biobanks like these
are collecting more samples—and in some cases,
10 times as many samples—as are released for
research, according to a recent biobank survey.
If unused, these samples can quickly become
degraded or obsolete. Approximately 42 percent
of biobanked specimens are at least five years
old, according to the survey. Consider a five-year-old sample of a breast cancer tumor. In the
five years since the sample was collected, at least
three critical breast cancer biomarkers have been
Since the sample was collected prior to the
biomarker discoveries, it’s impossible to know
whether that sample possesses any of those
biomarkers—unless researchers retest it, which
consumes not only time but a portion of the
sample itself. Ideally, such samples would have
been used shortly after collection and replenished