Overview of Belgian Biobanks
The Belgian biobank landscape is quite fragmented and organised over different regions, institutes and disease areas. The landscape is dominated by the University Hospitals, who have often established a centralized biobanking infrastructure in collaboration with the related University, and sometimes other local partners. The Belgian Cancer Registry (“Kankerregister”) is an important player in the field, hosting a large biobank network (the Belgian Virtual Tumourbank) as well as BBMRI.be, the Belgian national node of BBMRI-ERIC. Besides BBMRI.be, there are several networks (described below) aiming to better harmonize biobanking activities. Despite these efforts, access to samples and data remains a large challenge in Belgium. A main reason for this is that despite attempts to harmonize the biobanking landscape, individual biobanks mostly have their own local rules and regulations. Difficult access can be a limitation for researchers and especially for industrial end-user.
BBMRI.be was established to foster translational research in biomedicine, through the valorisation of biobanks. The Belgian node of BBMRI-ERIC works on matters like quality control, access, transparency, and interconnectedness of biobanks. It is funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO); the national node coordinator is appointed by the Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health. The Belgian participation in BBMRI-ERIC was initiated by a collaboration of 3 biobank networks in Belgium: the Belgian Virtual Tumourbank (BVT), the Biothèque Wallonie Bruxelles (BWB), and the Flemish Biobank Network. The BBMRI-ERIC directory provides an overview of biobanks in Belgium and all other participating countries. BBMRI.be is currently in the process of creating a new governance structure, in which end-users (researchers as well as industry) are also involved.
Belgian Virtual Tumourbank
As part of the Belgian National Cancer Plan (2008), the Belgian Virtual Tumourbank (BVT) was established in 2009. The BVT is managed by the Belgian Cancer Registry, and brings together 11 hospitals, including all major university hospitals. Residual tumour tissue and related clinical data are collected by each of these sites. The BVT aims to store all this data in a centralized database. Through its online catalogue, researchers can identify relevant sample and data collections of BVT’s partner institutes. Subsequently, the researchers can request the institute in question to use samples and data for their research.
Biothèque Wallonie Bruxelles (BWB)
The Biothèque Wallonie Bruxelles (BWB) unites Biobanks in the Wallonia – Brussels territory. Unlike the BVT, the BWB does not focus on a specific disease, but brings together sample collections related to all kinds of diseases. Still, it partly overlaps with the BVT since biobanks from the Wallonia-Brussels region that store collection of tumour tissue (e.g. Tumourbank at Jules Bordet Instititut) can be part of both BVT and BWB.
By providing a single point of access and streamlining internal approval procedures, BWB simplifies access to samples from the different biobanks. Each biobanks still has its own set of regulations, but
BWB makes it easier for people to find the relevant samples and acquire them, through its virtual catalogue. This catalogue can be accessed with an electronic identification (eID). Once a researcher has found the needed samples, BWB can bring them in contact with the relevant biobanks. This service is provided for researchers, but BWB also has ongoing collaborations with industrial end- users.
Flemish Biobank Network
In the early 2010s, a Flemish biobanking initiative was established, coordinated by the Centre for Medical Innovation (CMI) in Flanders. Some years ago, the funding for this initiative ended, and as a result the network is now no longer active. The Flemish biobank network aimed to create a centralized Flemish biobank, coordinating sample collections of the 5 universities and 4 university hospitals of Flanders, all relating to specific disease areas. This coordination of specific collections was supposed to provide easy access to the samples for researchers, as well as industrial end-users. The initiative specifically targeted industry, for example by attempting to create a uniform MTA, to make it easier for companies to get hold of the samples.
The work of the CMI has mostly continued under BBMRI.be, but collaborations between Flemish biobanks are no longer coordinated by an overarching regional network.