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Last Updated: 12/15/15

Why are Biospecimens Important in Cancer Research

Biospecimens contain an extraordinary amount of biological information, written in the language of cells, genes and proteins. Each biospecimen is also defined by a clinical context - the age, gender, race, diet, and various aspects of the environment the patient has been exposed to during his life. The personal and clinical information comes from interviews at the time the specimen is donated, from medical records patients consent to provide, and from clinical trials that patients volunteer to join. Annotation is the term for this personal and clinical information that labels each biospecimen. The quality of the annotation is as important as the quality of the biospecimen itself.

Researchers can then frame questions that will be answered by looking at hundreds or thousands of samples. For example, they often use the biospecimen to identify the biological characteristics of cancer cells over time, and then correlate those patterns with the clinical picture - how different patients experience progression of the disease.

With unprecedented advances in technology in recent years, scientists are building a greater understanding of how cancer begins and grows in the human body. This is providing a foundation of knowledge and laying the groundwork for “personalized medicine” as scientists begin developing tailored treatments and interventions for cancer patients based on one’s molecular features. This personalized approach will mitigate many of the risks associated with treatment under the current trial-and-error method. However, the development of personalized medicine, with benefits of more effective and less toxic individualized therapies, depends heavily upon the availability of high quality biospecimens. Unfortunately, cancer research is currently suffering because of a lack of high quality biospecimens harvested and stored according to standard protocols.

Specifically, human biospecimens are used to:

  • Identify (and validate) ways to deliver drugs or agents to specific cells
  • Identify how diseases progress and vary
  • Group patients, based on their genetic characteristics, as more or less likely to respond to specific drugs
  • Group patients, based on biomarkers of their disease, to determine which treatment is most appropriate
  • Develop screening tests to detect biomarkers that are associated with certain stages or sub-types of a disease

For more information about the role of biospecimens in research and about the importance of biospecimen donation, BBRB has developed these educational brochures.