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Speeding up the search for brain samples

James Ironside (stack of brain samples bottom right)

James Ironside (stack of brain samples bottom right)

Scientists working on brain diseases are often disheartened by the tricky process of tracking down human tissue samples for their work. But now they can use a new database to speed up their searches, explains James Ironside, Director of the UK Brain Banks Network. 

Frustrating to find, time-consuming to request, and trapped behind endless paperwork; these are just some of the reasons neuroscientists give for not using human tissue samples in their research.

Over the past few years I’ve been trying to address these problems in my role as Director of the UK Brain Banks Network, a group of brain banks that the MRC established across the UK in 2009, which are funded by the MRC, the NHS and five charities: the MS Society, Parkinson’s UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Autistica.

The 10 banks collect, store and provide human brain tissue samples from more than 7,000 brains for research. Although scientists can model many aspects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis or motor neuron disease in the lab, they need samples of human brain tissue to validate their work, and understand the full complexity of these disorders.

Today, we’re launching an online database that details every tissue sample in each of the brain banks, meaning that for the first time searchable data on the entire collection of tissue samples will be available free of charge to researchers working in academia or industry. The database includes information on each sample, such as the disease the person had, or whether the sample is a ‘control’ — vital tissue from a healthy brain needed for comparison. Researchers will also be able to order samples through the database.

Until today, anyone looking for brain tissue samples for research would’ve needed to contact each of the 10 UK brain banks in turn to get hold of their required tissue sample; a time consuming and off-putting task. The new database will enable quick and easy access for researchers who are planning a grant application, or who are already working on a neurological or psychiatric disease (perhaps in animal models or cells) and would like to translate their findings into human tissues.

Research into disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease is now a UK priority and I hope that the database will make it easier for researchers to get hold of the samples they require and, if they’re not available, allow us to collect them as quickly as possible.

Access procedures for the samples have also been simplified, meaning that the brain banks can now provide tissue samples to researchers without the need for them to obtain ethics approval first, because all the banks now have ethics approval as research tissue banks.

A group of researchers who are already using human brain tissue samples have “test driven” the database but I’d welcome further comments from anyone who uses it so that we can make accessing and identifying the samples even simpler.

It is my hope that the database will help scientists to progress their research more quickly and more easily. If you know a researcher working on neurodegeneration or any other brain disorder please pass the message on — tissue samples are available and easy to find.

James Ironside

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