Biobanking: a vital asset for Belgium’s scientific excellence

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In 2014, three French-speaking universities of Belgium (UCL, ULB, ULg, in association with UMons and UNamur) joined forces, with the support of DG06, Innoviris and BioWin, to create the Biothèque Wallonie Bruxelles (BWB), the network of biobanking entities in the regions of Brussels Capital and Wallonia providing a virtual catalogue of biospecimens covering a large panel of diseases in addition to cancer.

Bernard-Jean Demarcin, Operating Manager, and Sabine Cornelis, Industries Expert, explain the main biobanking issues in Belgium as well as the role of BWB in that context.

What is the mission of BWB?

B-J.D – BWB is a network of biobanking entities located in Brussels Capital and Wallonia regions, that collects and stores human biological samples (mainly tissues and cells) for use in research. Samples are collected (via blood tests, smear tests, surgery for instance) in university hospitals for a diagnostics purpose. Once samples are processed, the residue (part of the samples that was not needed for testing) goes to the biobank for storage. We can provide academic and industrial researchers with associated statistically significant clinical data, we facilitate the collaboration with the ethic committee and we also oversee all administrative aspects related to a sample request.

Today, there are no diagnostics tests or drugs (at the clinical development stage) that do not require tests on relevant samples. Biobanking became vital for the bioindustry!”

How do you manage the samples?

S.C – We are building a virtual catalogue that lists all the samples that are available in the different organizations members of the network. BWB aims at becoming a unique contact point for all the researchers that are looking for human biological material samples.. BWB was also created to make sure that ethical guidelines and conditions are respected by researchers. Bioethics laws are more rigorous in Belgium than in the other European countries since their application fields are more extensive. This is particularly true for residual samples which, on the contrary of the other European countries’ practices, can be used for research on basis of patients’ presumed consent (to the extend the patient does not oppose) just like it happens for organs donation.

What is your development strategy?

B-J.D – The added-value of BWB lies in its capacity to federate all the biobanking entities and to centralize the access to all the samples available in Brussels Capital and Wallonia region. The researchers can have access to a broad panel of high quality samples and rely on an academic expertise in connection with the data associated with samples. Our integrated database gives an overview of the materiel available. We also provide many additional services such as national and international connections through (Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructures – Europeam Research Infrastructure Consortium), BVT (Belgian Virtual Tumourbank) and CMI (Center for Medical Innovation), support to put in place a prospective study if the samples are not directly available, validation tests, connections with the biggest hospitals and research centers, partners identification for the development of potential national and international collaborations and, last but not least, the expertise of an “industries specialist” who understands what the researchers are waiting for and what they are talking about!

The development of the strategy relies on a study performed by Alcimed that shows the demand from the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries as well as the need for a single access point for researchers.

How to request samples?

S.C – Researchers can call us anytime to get more information about the process and the different solutions that are offered to them. For a “classic” sample request, it takes about a week to set up the procedure to make samples available. Nonetheless, this barely happens since, contrary to what we thought initially. Each request is very specific and requires more investigations from BWB about the type of pathology, the associated pathology subcategories, the state of advancement, etc. Actually, we provide tailor-made support depending on the case.

It is paramount though to inform researchers that the earliest they get in touch with us, the easiest it is to access relevant samples for their research”.

Do you have a lot of industrial clients?

S.C – More and more companies start to contact us for sample requests. BWB is a neutral organization which collaborates with academic and industrial players alike but it is indeed important that companies know that BWB is a reliable samples supplier but also a good partner to ensure that their R&D projects are in line with national and European legislations. We count on BioWin’s expertise and network to attract more industrial researchers!

How is BWB positioned on the European stage?

B-J.D – On the one hand, BWB only collects samples at local scale. On the other hand, samples can circulate in the EU. We are member of the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure ( initiative and we collaborate with other European biobanking institutions to set up common procedures to facilitate the access to samples (more especially for samples used for research projects on rare diseases or for very specific requests). Actually, there is no real competition but Belgium stands out for its samples quality management that includes standards that are emerging from the field. Also Flanders and Wallonia regions are working together on audit crossed-procedures that will be implemented before international standards are effective. BWB is open to Belgian and international researchers but since proximity is key for samples supply, our activity is mainly located in Belgium for the moment. If foreign companies or research institutes should need our help, we will do our best to address their needs as long as the project fully respects bioethics guidelines enacted by the Belgian laws but also by the laws of their own country.

How can you ensure the quality of the samples?

B-J.D – We have written a document called the “Quality Book” which is derived from the principles of ISO9001 and ISO 15189 standards, from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), from ISO standards that are currently being elaborated for biobanking organizations. This handbook will be a reference shared, at the federal level, by all biobanking entities. The common audits mentioned previously guaranty that this is implemented in each biobank.


(Source: BioWin)