Processing ‘Biospecimens’ Propels Cancer-Fighting Discoveries

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September 9, 2019

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Headline-making advances in precision medicine rely on more than funding and facilities. Without access to donated human tissue, these discoveries would be impossible. Every person’s biology is different, so researchers must study the molecular makeup of thousands of tissue samples to learn which treatments work best for different patients’ cancers.

These samples, called biospecimens, can be any material from the human body, such as tissue, blood and urine. At Miami Cancer Institute’s Center for Genomic Medicine, biospecimens are collected, processed and stored by two integrated units: the Biospecimen Repository Facility and the Protocol Support Laboratory.

“This infrastructure is not common at many cancer centers,” says Zuanel Diaz, Ph.D., director, Protocol Support Laboratory and Biospecimen Research Facility.  “Having these facilities in-house is typical of a cancer center that wants to be at the forefront of research in cancer treatment and prevention.”

The first step in obtaining tissue is meeting with patients to discuss the biorepository program. Clinical research coordinators explain the program to patients and get their informed consent to donate tissue for research purposes. Participation in the program does not affect the patients’ treatment. The tissue donated is usually left over from a medical procedure or test – material that would otherwise be destroyed. Currently, about 300 patients are enrolled each month.

South Florida’s population, with its high percentage of patients with Latin American and Caribbean roots, presents the Center for Genomic Medicine with a unique opportunity to obtain biospecimens from these traditionally underrepresented groups. 

According to Dr. Diaz, “It’s important for those patients to contribute to the biorepository because including them in research projects will have an impact on the development of drugs, diagnostic or preventive strategies that will be effective for those particular populations.”   

Once tissue samples are collected, a team of trained specialists in the Protocol Support Laboratory carefully preserves them following strict protocols. In the Biospecimen Repository, the samples are stored at temperatures that range from -80 degrees to -150 degrees Celsius until the time that they are requested by a researcher.

These state-of-the-art facilities are equipped with the latest technology, enabling the Institute to fulfill the needs of any research sponsor. The biospecimens are available for use in clinical trials conducted by other cancer institutes, government agencies, universities and pharmaceutical companies, in addition to studies driven by Miami Cancer Institute’s own researchers.   

“It’s very important to have a robust infrastructure to collect, process, store and distribute biospecimens because they are being used to propel new knowledge and support new scientific discoveries,” Dr. Diaz says. “We are very thankful for those patients that contribute their samples for future research.”

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