Inside the big freeze that is supporting health research

Hundreds of patients every year make a vital contribution to health research by allowing their tissue samples to be stored and frozen in one of the biggest human tissue banks in East Anglia.

The Bob Champion Research and Education building is the Norwich Research Park (NRP) Biorepository, which is home to thousands of samples to aid dozens of research projects to improve human health.

The Biorepository is part of our hospital’s Research and Development department and works closely with colleagues at Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB) and UEA to provide donated samples of human tissue to health researchers.

If you are having an upcoming medical procedure, you may be asked if you’d like to have your surplus samples stored at the Biorepository.

Since its formation in 2016, around 700 patients a year consent to having samples and associated data collected by the Biorepository, which currently supports around 35 research studies on the NRP. It is home to a purpose-built environment to house dozens of -80C freezers, providing material for researchers locally, nationally, and internationally and long-term storage of tissue samples.

Dr Rachael Stanley, Biorepository Manager, said the service was the key resource for researchers and scientists looking for human samples to further their work.

“We are part of the NNUH and an NHS-run facility so donors can be reassured that of all our processes are tightly controlled and are regulated by the relevant authorities and external bodies.

“Most biorepositories are based in universities but being part of the hospital and holding our own national research ethics approval allows us to collect tissue and data from the hospital and anonymise it for researchers.

“The tissue we provide is used for translational research that aims to help better understand human health and disease. It is pushing to make people’s day-to-day lives better, whether they are suffering from acute disease or long-term chronic illnesses. Much of the tissue we collect goes on to help researchers in areas such as cancer and gut health. The tissue bank supplies the resource for scientists to answer the big questions and to find new treatments.”

The Biorepository is also home to a bank of hundreds of thousands of diagnostic archives that date back to the 1980s.

The facility has supported medical research by UEA and the NNUH, and several Quadram Institute studies, including the BAMBI study looking at improving the health of premature babies, we were part of the large 100,000 genome project and Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK).

Rachael added: “We collect material that a researcher has asked us to collect and will be useful for research, rather than collect and store large quantities of samples that may be of limited use.

“We support a wide variety of projects; there is currently a lot of interest in gut health and microbiome research at Norwich Research Park. We also support research into cancer (breast, melanoma, colorectal), orthopaedic research, pathogens and infections and women’s health amongst others.”

The team currently sees patients in clinic or speak to them on the phone to get signed consent to have surplus or research samples and associated data stored in the Biorepository.

There will be an option soon for participants to give online enduring consent via the biorepository website, meaning that donors will only have to give consent once. Patients can also consent if they have an interest in taking part in future research.

The unit fully complies with the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) and Health Research Authority (HRA).