Banking on a cure – the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank

In the last month, the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank has hit the milestone of consenting and collecting samples from over 10,000 breast cancer patients. To find out more we asked Professor Wayne Phillips, chair of the Tissue Bank Advisory Council, about the Tissue Bank and how it’s supporting the breast cancer research community.

The Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank is the UK’s largest unique collection of high-quality breast tissue, breast cells and blood samples from breast cancer and surgery patients.

10,000 patients have donated to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. What feedback do you get from them about the Bank?

The most common reaction from patients when they are asked for consent to donate is surprise that leftover breast tissue would otherwise be thrown away after their operation!

Patients are approached to donate at hospitals connected to the five centers of the Bank (in Nottingham, Leeds, Bart’s in London, Sheffield and Southampton), and 99% have consented to donate – an overwhelming positive response.

The Tissue Bank only collects breast tissue that is left after the pathology team are done with diagnosing the tumor, so patients know that collection won’t impact their treatment. Sample and treatment information is also anonymized to protect the donor’s identity.

Why is it important to have so many samples in the Bank?

For results to be robust you need a large number of samples in research – enough to correctly ‘power’ your statistical analysis. So far the Tissue Bank has collected around 40,000 samples from over 10,000 patients, which provide the numbers needed for robust studies.

We also have some rarer types of breast cancer, which researchers might otherwise struggle to access and study in large numbers.

We also have some rarer types of breast cancer, which researchers might otherwise struggle to access and study in large numbers. For example, we have samples from male breast cancer patients, younger women with breast cancer and a family history of the disease, and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) samples.

Do you have any patient involvement beyond tissue donations?

We have patient advocates on both our Tissue Access Committee, to review each application for material, and on the Tissue Bank Advisory Council to help guide the direction of the Bank.

The Bank is only made possible by patients so we strongly believe that we should have patients involved to help decide how the Bank is run and how the samples are used.

What materials are there in the Bank?

Alongside cancerous and non-cancerous breast tissue samples (both frozen and formalin fixed) there are blood samples, DNA and RNA. We also host pre-made tissue microarrays and can make custom microarrays on request. Microarrays are hundreds of tiny samples put on one slide so that they can all be quickly tested for a molecule of interest.

The Tissue Bank also has the facilities to create cell cultures directly from tissue samples. This provides an important alternative to cell lines for the research community.

Treatment, follow-up and lifestyle data is available for many samples and this data and more is also available through the Bank’s Bioinformatics Portal, which grows as more researchers feed results back into the database.

Who and how can researchers access the materials?

We are now accepting applications from the international research community and in discussions about whether we can meet the needs of commercial applicants.

Researchers can search for materials and apply through the Tissue Bank website. We are now accepting applications from the international research community and in discussions about whether we can meet the needs of commercial applicants. All applications are assessed by the Tissue Access Committee to check they are scientifically sound and a good use of this precious resource.

Have there been any results published using samples from the Bank?

So far more than 7,600 samples have been used in or allocated research. Published results from those projects include: a comparison of epigenetic methylation between cell lines and material from the Tissue Bank and the discovery that cell membrane proteins usually associated with excitable cells like neurons are up-regulated in metastatic breast cancer.

How is the Tissue Bank responding to the needs of the research community?

The cell culture program is one new approach we’ve taken to meet these needs.

Stained breast cells isolated from normal breast tissue as part of the cell culture programme
Stained breast cells isolated from normal breast tissue as part of the cell culture programme
Breast Cancer Now

To address the need to better understand secondary breast cancer, the team at Bart’s is setting up a Rapid Autopsy Programme where women with metastatic breast cancer will be consented to donate tissue after death.

In Sheffield, we have also had the opportunity to fund the collection of blood samples from breast cancer patients over a three year period. This will offer the research community a unique opportunity to look at DNA, RNA and circulating tumor cells in blood samples taken over time.

What are your hopes for the future of the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank?

Of course I’d like to see the Tissue Bank assisting and accelerating more research across the international research community. Central to that is, of course, keeping up with the needs of the research community.

I’ve seen the huge impact on research that the Victorian Cancer Biobank, has had here in Australia over the past ten years, and ultimately I hope to see the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank achieving the same.

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