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B3Africa Biobanking Initiative

Groundbreaking Africa-EU partnership in biomedical sciences: Foundation of global biobanking research infrastructure.

UWC’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) hosted the first meeting of the newly launched project B3Africa project on 24-25 August 2015.

B3 Africa - Bridging Biobanking and Biomedical Research across Europe and Africa - joins together eleven partners from African and European countries to develop a collaboration framework and an informatics infrastructure that will accelerate and facilitate biomedical research across the continents to address global health challenges together.  Via the Horizon 2020 work programme, the European Commission provides a budget of ~ 2 million Euro over a period of three years for the initiative.

Biological specimens have been collected for decades, but only since the late 1990s have biobanks become established in a more systematic way. Biobanks collect and store a variety of (mostly human) samples from tissue, cells, blood, saliva, plasma, or DNA. These samples are essential in biomedical research to understand disease mechanism and develop new therapies.

“Biobanking has volving rapidly in Africa - and specifically in South Africa,” explains SANBI Director Prbeen eofessor Alan Christoffels. “In this context, my laboratory has been working on laboratory information management systems and data standards, in partnership with open-source teams such as a BIKA LIMS and a repository run by Prof Akin Abayomi, based at the University of Stellenbosch.”

The rapidly-evolving African biobanks are invaluable for biomedical research because the African population has the greatest genomic diversity on the planet and represents an incredible resource of information to advance fundamental understanding of health and disease. The collaboration is expected significantly to improve and facilitate development of better predictive, preventive and personalized healthcare worldwide.

“The easy-to-use technical solutions will allow the participation of research from different regions regardless of their level of development and networking capabilities,” Christoffels notes, “and it will make it possible to include many research institutions as equal partners in a global effort to improve health and well-being.”

B3Africa has two strategic aims:

Create a harmonised ethical and legal framework between European and African partner institutions: A common ethical and legal framework is essential for a trustable informatics platform that will allow sharing bio-resources and data and also consolidate the Africa-EU biobank cooperation.

Provide an “out-of-the-box” informatics solution that facilitates data management, processing and sharing and cal also be used under challenging networking conditions in Africa and Europe.

The collaboration harmonizes the ethical and legal frameworks, biobank data representation and bioinformatics pipelines for sharing data and knowledge among biobanks and allowing access for researchers from both continents.

“Access to high quality biological samples is the number one requirement to advance biomedical research. The technology exists,” explains Jan-Eric Litton, one of the initiators of the European Biobanking infrastructure BBMRI-ERIC, “but policymakers will have to learn to view biological samples as key raw material for 21st century medical science.”

“Biobanks ensure that we accurately capture both a biological specimen and its associated data for future use,” says Prof Christoffels. “Connecting bio-resources from Africa and Europe and providing adequate technology will revolutionise how we perform research, accelerating the provision of infrastructure desperately needed to ensure protection and re-use of Africa’s genomic data. We have no time to lose.”