EU-Africa... Time to unwrap compatible biobanking!
As more and more people travel and global warming paves the way for diseases to spread, human health and welfare are no longer the preserve of single countries, regions or even continents. European researchers teamed up with African partners to bridge the gap in biomedical research and biobanking practices between the regions. Its biobank-in-a-box is now ready to be unwrapped.
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The resurgence of diseases like Ebola points to the need for coordinated global responses to health threats, which means doing things like biological research in standardised ways. But there is a problem: regions store and manage biological samples (biobanks) differently.
Tissue samples, genetic information and other vital sources of biological data used to understand human health need to be managed the same, regardless of the source country. IT systems used to process the samples and analyse the data known as bioinformatics need to be interoperable. Researchers working in the field or lab need to follow the same practices to ensure the findings are reliable.
We desperately needed a globally standardised approach to make sure that no matter where a disease or health crisis breaks out, research can quickly respond, knowing that everyone is on the same page, says Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, a professor and head of bioinformatics infrastructure at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Thanks to EU support for our B3Africa project, and working with our research partners, weve created a platform with technical and intellectual resources to bridge European and African biobanking and biological research.
B3Africas seven-country international consortium, including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, has integrated available open-source software, services and tools, as well as public databases, for use by African and European biobanks and research institutions.
A box of cool tools
Partners brainstormed the specifications and modules needed for a new lab information management system, called Baobab LIMS, to be offered as a component of a biobank-in-a-box platform being developed by Bika Labs, a B3Africa partner. Meanwhile, South Africas NSB Biobank provided the LIMS use case, covering everything from lab kit assembly, sample storage and access policies to shipping and invoicing standards.
While developing standard data models for the platform, close attention was paid to data protection protocols in the EU and Africa. Emphasis was also placed on making the systems as easy to use and interoperable as possible. Bespoke training systems and a simplified user interface for bioinformatics workflow management, called Galaksio, were created to further help users.
Once it is widely used, B3Africas biobank-in-box management system will dramatically improve predictive, preventive and personalised healthcare worldwide, predicts Bongcam-Rudloff, as the project puts the finishing touches on three years of work.
International imperatives critical cooperation
Growing populations and rich genetic diversity are driving forces in the rapidly-evolving field of gene-based medicine and genomics, which makes African biobanks an incredible resource of information to advance biomedical research, according to the project team.
And international cooperation with African partners was critical to developing better research infrastructure and capabilities to tackle new medical threats and take advantage of advances in biotech and personalised healthcare.
B3Africas training, infrastructure development and knowledge exchange tremendously expedited our biobanking and bioinformatics activities, says project partner Moses L Joloba of Makerere University College of Health Sciences, Uganda. Weve also managed to lead the writing of the national guidelines for biobanking in Uganda and established a course in biorepository science here in the School of Biomedical Sciences Department of Immunology and Molecular Biology.
Contributions from the H3Africa project, specialising in human heredity and health in Africa, and infrastructure supplied by the European Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources (BBMRI-ERIC) played an important role in B3Africas success. Working closely with the LMIC Biobank and Cohort Network (BCNet), the B3Africa team was able to harmonise the ethical and legal framework, as well as how data is collated, presented and shared among biobanks.
B3Africa provided the critical mass to deal with the fragmented biomedical research landscape, effectively integrating and leveraging existing biobanks and e-infrastructures in Europe and Africa.