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Banking on breakthroughs

UTHealth leaders are developing a system that would boost
scientific discoveries

Written by Meredith Raine

woman replacing tray in biobank

The Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS) Biobank, headquartered at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing, is part of a new approach to translational research nationwide. The ability of the biobank to connect researchers to thousands of samples and related data is making possible genetic research that will impact the health of the nation.

The goal of this sophisticated resource is to expedite research results, translating them to prevention, treatment and cures for rare and common, complex diseases. “It has been rewarding to be part of an interdisciplinary effort that has caught the attention of and grown to include other universities across the country,” says Lorraine Frazier, Ph.D., R.N., the Nancy B. Willerson Distinguished Professor in Nursing at UTHealth School of Nursing.

The concept of the biobank for scientists began in 2001 when James T. Willerson, M.D., then-president of UTHealth and now president of Texas Heart Institute, announced the creation of the TexGen research project.

The university partnered with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine to collect DNA on a voluntary basis from patients with cancer and cardiovascular disease, identify genes that play a role in those diseases, and tap the potential of genetics to tailor medical treatment to individual patients.

TexGen provided the foundation on which to develop the CCTS Biobank as a component of the university’s prestigious Clinical and Translational Sciences Award, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Now, with an additional award from NIH, the CCTS Biobank has partnered with five prominent institutions in the country to establish the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Biobank Consortium.

“We are absolutely delighted to see that the biobank initiative, supported by our NIH CTSA grant, is enabling not only our researchers but researchers from many collaborating institutions to tackle some of the most critical problems in translational research,” says Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., provost and executive vice president for research at UTHealth. “The team led by Dr. Frazier and her colleagues in the School of Nursing are to be congratulated for developing the concept of a federated biobank and then turning this idea into a true engine of discovery.”

“Any researcher at the consortium universities will have the ability to explore, select and apply for some of the tens of thousands of samples contained in these collective efforts,” says Patricia Jones, biobank coordinator and program manager of nursing systems at the School of Nursing. “We are creating and supporting an automated system that will streamline and regulate the sample and data sharing process that once required years of sample collection,” Jones says. “This efficiency will be realized in cost and time savings to the researcher, and the biobank consortium is the gateway.”

In the Texas Medical Center, Frazier, director of the CTSA Biobank Consortium, and other scientists have already proven that a research-sharing system can work. The local CCTS Biobank, with an inventory that includes more than 135,000 biological samples, has resulted in 102 research publications and at least three funded grants.

“These results, in part, are because of support from the nurses, physicians and patients at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, the Texas Heart Institute, Memorial Hermann- Texas Medical Center, Texas Children’s Hospital, The Methodist Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center,” Frazier says.

With samples from the biobank, Frazier’s research team discovered that depression and inflammation were significant predictors for outcomes in patients with heart disease. “My research has very much been impacted by the biobank,” she says. “Without the biobank, we wouldn’t be able to answer these questions.”

Eric Boerwinkle, Ph.D., who leads human genetics research at the university’s Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases and UTHealth School of Public Health, says biobanking has helped him advance his research in a number of ways.

With access to ethnically diverse blood samples, Boerwinkle has made genetic discoveries related to hypertension in African-Americans and diabetes in Hispanic populations. Biobanking has helped him forge collaborations and seize funding opportunities that otherwise might not have existed.

“As a founding member of TexGen, I wanted to create a resource for young investigators to access samples so they could do their own research,” Boerwinkle says. “We planted this seed in the Texas Medical Center, and now it is growing. It’s an exciting time to be in research.”

Frazier’s CTSA Biobank Consortium project team is charged with developing the business model, Webbased software and policies that protect patients and sample owners, and guide the use and integrity of the data and biological samples.

Among the team members who will be involved in the software development and policies designed to protect its information is William A. Weems, Ph.D., UTHealth’s assistant vice president for academic technology and associate dean for Information Technology at the UTHealth Medical School.

“We will be building a cross-institutional research infrastructure that will facilitate the sharing of tissues and information among researchers at multiple institutions in an extremely transparent and simple way,” Weems says. “With this federated system, research that would never have been attempted will occur, and the extreme cost of many research efforts will be significantly reduced. The more individuals we have using the system and sharing their research, the greater the impact will be on increasing knowledge and human health.”

Meredith Raine

Meredith Raine is director of Media Relations/Office of Advancement. A former newspaper reporter, Meredith has been a member of the Media Relations Team since January 2001.