The advantages of prospective collection for modern biobanks

Biobanks are storage banks for samples of human origin, for use in national and international research in the field of biomedicine1. Over the last few decades, the practice of biobanking has evolved significantly, developing from basic biological sample storage at small university-based repositories to sophisticated and dynamic entities, a great example being the Biobanking and BioMolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI), one of the largest research infrastructures for health research in Europe2. As patients, healthcare organizations, and drug developers collaborate ever more closely to advance research in therapeutic areas with unmet medical needs, biobanks have become a vital part of this ecosystem, providing invaluable biospecimens to enable better understanding of human health and disease.

Traditionally, biobanks have collected specimens based on the expectation of future research requests. This allows the ‘classic’ biobank to build a retrospective collection that is readily available to interested investigators, typically through a catalogue mechanism. Remnant clinical specimens from surgery, autopsy or cytology are collected from both deceased and consented living organ donors, and these biospecimens are not needed for clinical activities such as diagnostics and would have been discarded otherwise. While this model of biobanking has been and will continue to be critical to the research community, several concerns have come to the fore, including underutilization of biospecimens, increased expenses, and reduced chargeback income3. Ethical issues have also been raised as to the acceptability of collecting biospecimens from consented patients without realistic plans for their effective utilization in research, as well as problems with the disposition of unused biospecimens when biobanks close4.

An increasing number of biobanks everywhere are offering prospective collections as an alternative approach to better support biomedical research and drug development5. In the prospective model, investigators first request biospecimens by specifying the detailed characteristics of the tissue specimens needed to support their research, for example, a specific diagnosis like ER+/PR+ ductal adenocarcinoma of the breast. Specimens are then prospectively collected based on the defined characteristics, followed by processing, short-term storage, and rapid distribution by the biobank3. This approach is particularly attractive to many drug developers, and there are several instances which require prospective collection6

  1. fresh biospecimens are required for downstream studies; 
  2. stored biospecimens are not available due to the rarity of the disease; 
  3. samples available do not meet the requirements of the project, e.g. additional data on the subject is needed, multiple samples per subject need to be collected, or the intended research use of the samples has not been consented for.

The prospective model offers a number of advantages over classic biobanking, such as providing a tailored product to investigators that may be more useful versus biospecimens collected under a standard SOP, or minimizing molecular changes and artifacts due to long-term storage. Prospective collections are also typically more efficient in distributing biospecimens, reducing the financial costs associated with biobanking and avoiding ethical dilemmas arising from the non-utilization of collected biospecimens. Considering the trend towards prospective collection, Grizzle et al. has suggested that “biodistributor” should be the preferred term for this practice instead of “biobank” or “biorepository”, to eliminate the connotation of biospecimens being collected and locked away versus the distribution and use of biospecimens in research, which should ultimately be the goal of biobanking3

Although prospective collections might be more labor intensive than the classic model and sample procurement might take longer, its value as a dynamic asset to the research community cannot be overstated, particularly in rare diseases or for research projects that have specific requirements that would not usually be covered by standard biobanking collection procedures. Further, the rapid distribution and use of biospecimens ensures that the intentions of the specimen donors are honored. As precision medicine becomes part of routine healthcare and the need for biospecimens by researchers and drug developers continues to grow, prospective collection will undoubtedly become the future standard for biobanks. 



  1.   Riegman, P. H. J., Morente, M. M., Betsou, F., de Blasio, P. & Geary, P. Biobanking for better healthcare. Mol. Oncol. 2, 213–222 (2008).
  2. The Importance of Biobanking in Modern Medical Research. (2021).
  3.   Grizzle, W. E. & Sexton, K. C. Commentary on Improving Biospecimen Utilization by Classic Biobanks: Identifying Past and Minimizing Future Mistakes. Biopreserv. Biobank. 17, 243–247 (2019).
  4.   Cadigan, R. J. et al. Neglected ethical issues in biobank management: Results from a U.S. study. Life Sci. Soc. Policy 9, 1 (2013).
  5.   Grizzle, W. E., Sexton, K. C., McGarvey, D., Menchhofen, Z. V. & LiVolsi, V. Lessons Learned During Three Decades of Operations of Two Prospective Bioresources. Biopreserv. Biobank. 16, 483–492 (2018).
  6.   SampleSmart. Biospecimen Collection: Prospective Vs Retrospective. The SampleSmart Blog (2021).