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Building a biobank
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Biogen Inc., the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Partners HealthCare recently established a consortium for the purpose of building and sharing a COVID-19 biobank. The biobank, which will consist of a large collection of de-identified biological and medical data, will help scientists to advance their knowledge of the virus and search for potential vaccines and treatments.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a very direct, very personal impact on our Biogen community,” says Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan, chief medical officer of Biogen. “We are uniquely positioned to contribute to advancing COVID-19 science in an organized and deliberate way so we can all gain a better understanding of this virus. Many Biogen colleagues have been eager to find ways to help others during this pandemic, and it is our hope that this biobank will provide hope and essential information during this difficult time.”
“The collaboration began when several Biogen employees, who at the time were still recovering from COVID-19, began to consider ways they could contribute their own medical information to research efforts underway at Biogen and beyond. In response, I reached out to several partners in the hospital and biomedical community—including Deborah Hung, a core faculty member and co-director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program of the Broad Institute, a professor in the departments of Genetics and Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a professor in the department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital,” Radhakrishnan notes. “This all took place in March and early April.”
Researchers believe that this clustered group of patients with a common exposure will offer a valuable lens into why some people show signs of disease and why others are asymptomatic. It could also shed light on why, among those with symptoms, some people experience more severe symptoms than others.
“The ability to collaborate directly with a cohort of local patients who were among the first in Massachusetts to contract COVID-19, and partner with leading healthcare and biomedical and research institutions across Kendall Square and the Boston area, allows us to launch many critical research approaches at once,” Hung explained. “Thanks to these patients and their close contacts, we’ll gain insights into the biology of how the disease moved through a relatively small group of the larger population, early in the local life cycle in Massachusetts. Just as important, we’ll be able to evaluate the levels of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, and this may offer some options for therapies in the near term.”
“The value of the biobank is the link between the epidemiology data that is being captured via the survey with the biorepository. Including people who did not test positive—either because they did not get tested, or did not become ill—is key to understanding asymptomatic infections and the severity of disease,” adds Radhakrishnan. “Researchers will also examine blood samples from recovered patients to evaluate the levels of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and other aspects of their immune profile, which may point the way toward short- and long-term therapeutic options.”
Biogen employees who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 are eligible to participate, as are close contacts of those individuals, regardless of whether their COVID-19 status was confirmed. Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital will be coordinating the outreach and sample collection effort.
“Our investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been working around the clock on several promising clinical trials that we hope will lead to effective treatments for COVID-19. But patient participation in research is critical, and the establishment of this biobank is a significant advancement for the research community and the broader patient population,” stated Dr. Ravi Thadhani, chief academic officer at Partners HealthCare. “Through this collaboration with Biogen and [the] employees who have volunteered to share their information, we will be able to learn significantly more about the characteristics and development of this disease and make important discoveries that will lead to treatments for the patients we care for and those around the world.”
Data from blood samples will be generated at the Broad Institute and de-identified. The biobank will provide a unique, anonymous medical and biological dataset.
“The biobank will also store frozen samples, which may inform future research with appropriate patient consent,” Radhakrishnan points out.
Biogen will have the same level of access to the biobank as any other researchers around the world. The company won’t have access to identifiable information, or know which employees and close contacts volunteered to participate.
“Patients who have volunteered to donate data … play a crucial role in the global effort to overcome COVID-19. Through a shared biobank, researchers will be able to identify new patterns and drastically expand our knowledge of a disease,” said Eric S. Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute. “We are enormously grateful to the Biogen employees, their family members and other close contacts who have volunteered to take part in this essential effort.”
“We’re grateful to these individuals for their willingness to participate, and hope that by sharing their data, researchers everywhere will be able to make new discoveries that point the way toward effective treatments,” concluded Hung.