MEAction blog post, by Simon McGrath, 11 August 2016: The UK ME/CFS biobank paves the way for bigger and better research
Simon McGrath reports that the UK ME/CFS Biobank is open for business, with blood samples available from 300 patients, soon be joined by samples of over 200 controls.
New blood for new blood
The Biobank makes it much easier for new researchers to come into ME/CFS research from other fields, as they now have a straightforward way access to patient samples (subject to Biobank approval of proposals). And attracting new talent to ME/CFS, to speed up progress, is a priority for the NIH in the US, the MRC in the UK, and patients too.
The Biobank could also make the tedious work of replication much easier. Any promising finding, such as a potential biomarker, needs replicating on a new group of patients to see if it represents real progress or is a false positive. The Biobank makes finding that new group of patients a great deal easier, paving the way for more replications and therefore more reliable research findings.
Enough blood to launch a wave of large studies
Blood is processed into different sample types, such as plasma and white blood cells.
The Biobank is big enough to potentially power a wave of new, large studies that would significantly change the research landscape. Size matters in research studies and bigger is better (for rather tedious statistical reasons). Big studies can detect smaller, but important, differences small studies would miss, as well as having the power to find subgroups – something incredibly important in ME research. Also, findings from small studies are also more likely to be false positives, and where they do find a real effect, it’s likely to be smaller than the study finds.
To put the Biobank’s potential to enable bigger studies into perspective, the largest biomedical study in recent times is Dr Mady Hornig and Dr Ian Lipkin‘s cytokine signature study last year, with almost 300 patients. There are 300 patients in the UK ME/CFS Biobank, with 40 samples for each patient (and control) so it could power many studies this size. The Lipkin/Hornig study needed two samples for each person in the study and if that’s typical then the 40 samples for each Biobank subject could power twenty such studies, each with 300 patients. Or it could power 60 studies with 100 patients each, still large by current standards.
The Biobank could power twenty huge studies with 300 patients each, or sixty large studies with 100 patients each. That would be game-changing
Of course, the key work is done by the researchers themselves, but the Biobank provides the all-important infrastructure that suddenly makes large studies much easier to pull off.
The Biobank was set up by the London School of Hygeine & Tropical Medicine’s CURE-ME group, and funded by UK charities Action for ME, The ME Association and ME Research UK with a £1 million grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a major expansion.