What Happens to a Donated Tumor?
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Biobanking Around the World

Here is a list of some of the world's largest biobanks.

Deciding to Donate: Six Things to Know

If you are thinking about donating your tumor, here is what you need to know.

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Katia Fuso's Special Tumor

A tumor removed from an Italian woman’s breast has helped researchers identify a gene that may help other cancer patients.

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By Stephen Ornes

What Happens to a Donated Tumor?

Tissue banks may hold the key to cancer research, but can we overcome the obstacles to unlocking their full potential?

By Stephen Ornes


In the basement of a gray building in New Haven, Conn., are a million tumors. Each tumor is encased in paraffin, and these blocks sit in the deep drawers of oversized filing cabinets that stretch from end to end of the quiet, basketball court–size room. Around the world are hundreds—if not thousands—of tissue repositories like this one, which belongs to the Yale School of Medicine. In the United States alone, there are more than 300 million preserved tumors, representing nearly 200 million cases.

These tumors also represent hope for the future. They are the start of a story that begins and ends with cancer survivors. The shortest version goes something like this: Cancer patients donate tumors, pathologists collect tumors, genetic researchers use tumors to study cancer.

Tissue intake windowThe end, one day in the future, could go like this: People diagnosed with cancer receive personalized medicine, custom-fit to their particular malignancies. “Personalized medicine,” like the catchphrases “molecular therapy” and “genetic engineering,” is part of a new lexicon of hope for people with a cancer diagnosis.

But a major obstacle threatens the promise of personalized medicine: Scientists aren’t always able to get the high-quality tumor samples they need for this research. Tumor banks were originally set up to fulfill institution-specific purposes, not to create public resources for genetic research. Most of these biobanks, especially the ones run by universities or major research institutions, don’t share with outsiders.

Plus, “biobanking in this country is done in silos—every single biobank that exists does things in its own way,” says pathologist Carolyn Compton. As a result, it’s difficult for researchers to find samples that have been uniformly collected and annotated. Even if a researcher does identify a potentially important molecular clue, “you may not be able to validate your original findings, because now you’re using different biospecimens annotated and collected in a different way,” Compton explains. “You can’t be using apples, oranges and grapes all in one unified project.”

Compton, who directs the Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), has an idea for how to remedy the problem. In 2006, her office established the Biospecimen Research Network, a program designed to study tissue specimens, including tumors, and ultimately bridge the gap between tissue collection and research that requires the tissue. For the last two years, the network has hosted meetings that bring researchers together to talk about biospecimen science, and in 2007, it produced recommendations for best practices in the collection and handling of tumors and other biospecimens. The Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research wants to standardize these practices.

Some biobanks have already adopted the guidelines. Now, Compton’s office is planning a national resource called the Cancer Human Biobank, which will give investigators access to large numbers of high-quality tumors and other tissues that have been collected and stored in consistent ways.


The Decision to Donate
Like all biobanks, the Cancer Human Biobank will depend on willing donors, and donors begin with consent forms. Informed consent is supposed to give people enough information about research for them to make an educated decision about whether to participate.



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