As part of the series of articles examining the impact and Manchester response to the COVID-19 pandemic and cancer research activities, our next blog highlights the activities of Sharzad Moghadam, Biobank Coordinator at the MCRC Biobank, who explains how the Biobank has adapted to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MCRC Biobank was established to support the world leading activities of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, providing researchers with access to high quality biological samples.
Operating out of The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, the Biobank has collected samples of tissue, blood and other samples from over 17,000 patients which can be requested for use in research projects.
The Biobank is used to adversity and overcoming challenges in a difficult environment like those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, it faced a similar challenge when the former Paterson Building was devastated by a fire, and now in 2020, it has had to adapt to a landscape overhauled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Locking Down the Biobank
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the activities of the Biobank. During ‘peacetime’, its staff would be in operating theatres collecting patient samples, or in clinics talking to patients, obtaining consent for samples to be collected, or transporting samples from the biobank to the laboratories for research processes to occur.
But this had to completely stop in March 2020.
To minimise the risk of infection and transmission to potentially vulnerable patients, both fresh sample collection and consent collection was immediately stopped. Pathology, where samples are cut, was also closed to research activity, and several members of the team adapted to working from home or were redeployed to other positions to support clinical activities within The Christie.
Moreover, the closure of other research organisations also impacted the procurement of consumables and ability to perform other activities. For instance, the lack of dry ice, meant samples could not be transported as easily, and the lack of reserve liquid nitrogen meant technicians could not enter freezers. Demand for samples also dropped, as laboratories shifted from in person work to research activities that can be accomplished from home.
As University laboratories begin to reopen in a limited capacity, many researchers will be keen to see all activities swiftly resume.
However, the process for the Biobank to return to business as usual is not nearly as simple. There are many challenges that need to be overcome, both regulatory and scientific. How can consumables be acquired to get the lab operational? How can samples be safely collected from vulnerable patients in clinics and theatres? How does transportation work safely between different departments? How is consent collected from patients safely?
One potential way forward is to get more people involved in the procedures of the biobank, with clinicians – who are able to safely see patients on a regular basis – gathering consent for samples to be collected.
A New World
As more becomes known about the COVID-19 virus, regulation and processes will adapt according to the latest scientific advice.
FFPE block storage – formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded blocks used to preserve and transport biopsy specimens – has been found to be unaffected by COVID-19 and therefore requests can take place from other sites.
Another challenge the Biobank faces is around samples potentially from COVID-positive patients. Currently the Biobank only supports samples from patients who have a confirmed COVID-negative test result.
But more and more research activities are starting to look at the impact of COVID-19 on cancer, therefore necessitating the collection of COVID-positive samples. Although this is an activity being actively investigated, the risk of infection through handling of tissue or blood samples is currently unknown and needs to be fully understood before samples can be processed.
The MCRC Biobank is open once again, and as more laboratories in Manchester return to normalcy following the COVID-19 pandemic, its activities will help to support the development of life-saving cancer research.
About Sharzad Moghadam
Sharzad Moghadam is the Biobank Coordinator, where she manages and coordinates project set-up activities at the MCRC Biobank.
Find out more about the MCRC Biobank through the following link: www.mcrc.manchester.ac.uk/biobank