COVID-19 Virtual Biobank

University of Nebraska Medical Center

Purpose of the Project

Create a network of tissue and data repositories to connect investigators

The ability to respond to critical health issues, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic due to SARS-CoV-2, will benefit from an integrated response of multiple institutions. Currently, individual and joint efforts are underway for clinical trials, registries, therapeutic developments, and other research endeavors. Here we propose to set up a Virtual Tissue Biobank for COVID-19 specimens to help drive this research, comprised of tissues obtained from biopsies, surgical excisions, and autopsies.

Quality biosamples and associated clinical data are key to clinical and translational research. The inability to obtain adequate numbers of biospecimens limits the power of research while poor or missing metadata limits the ability to draw accurate and meaningful conclusions. Rigor and reproducibility, essential to scientific progress, are consequently hampered.

A virtual biobank is an electronic database of biological specimens and other related information. As such it can bring together a widely dispersed collection of biospecimens and associated data in one location. This is accessible (through a secure interface) independent of where the specimens are stored. Investigators can then obtain access to more collaborators and specimens with accurate metadata, giving power and rigor to their study.

Donors (patients/subjects/families) benefit as they are assured that samples are valued and will be used for high quality studies as opposed to being stored and archived. Researchers benefit by obtaining high quality specimens and performing well-powered studies. Collaborative teams form and share knowledge, expertise, and data, maximizing biomedical progress.

We are experienced in setting up and running such a virtual biobank in our role as the Data Coordinating Center (DCC) for the National NeuroAIDS Tissue Consortium (NNTC). While starting as a brain bank, we have evolved into a comprehensive source of biospecimens and data from a longitudinal cohort. We maintain a centralized database containing clinical data, experimental data, and specimen information, accessible by a secure-access web portal which includes user mechanisms for querying the database. A major focus and role of the NNTC-DCC is to facilitate collaboration between stakeholders, which in addition to neuroHIV research community now includes those working on HIV reservoirs and cure efforts.

A particular interest of ours is the nervous system effects seen with COVID-19. These were found in over one-third of Wuhan patients. Here in the US central nervous system involvement is seen in approximately one-fourth of patients, including young adults with severe sequelae such as stroke. Peripheral nervous system disorders such as Guillain–Barré syndrome are also present. Obtaining brain and other nervous system specimens is of course difficult, thus those sites performing autopsies are essential. Linking together investigators with specimens and data from such patients will enable needed work to help prevent and treat such complications. Others will have their own clinical and research interests in different physiological systems, and through the virtual biobank we can help all.

We are aware of the multiple issues that can complicate the obtaining, storing, and sharing of specimens, including ethical, financial, and legal issues. We are experienced in helping solve these; but believe the first step is to reach out and define the participating individuals and institutions. The ability to be able to link those that have such specimens with each other and to other researchers is a needed step to drive the needed science, and can help provide the framework through joint solutions to potential problems.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has led to new levels of cooperation and information sharing. A virtual tissue biobank will help researchers determine the experimental feasibility and provide not only the opportunity to obtain specimens but also accurate clinical and provenance information. In addition, while promoting needed replications and validations, redundancy and duplications can be minimized. The ability to access information on biospecimens, enriched with relevant clinical information, perform quality research, and subsequently adding the data obtained on the biospecimens will greatly increase the potential of advancement.