The Unity Health Biobank, housed at both St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s, could hold the answers to developing personalized treatments to diseases such as brain cancer, COVID-19 and glaucoma.

With archived patient samples from each of these disease areas and others, researchers are able to access valuable human tissue to see how the solutions they’re creating and testing might work for different people.

For Research Month, Dr. Valeria Di Giovanni, manager of the Unity Health Research Biobank, took us on a tour of the space at St. Michael’s and shared with us her goals for the Biobank’s collaboration with Critical Care research.

What is a Biobank?

Di Giovanni: A Biobank is a library of samples. In the case of a hospital-based Biobank, those samples come from our patients. They can include things like blood, or urine, or cerebral spinal fluid.

We can also take tissues like tumours, and biopsies, and we also collect clinical information associated with those patients. At Unity Health, our Biobank is also a research facility that can be accessed by our researchers to support their projects.

How do you partner with scientists?

Di Giovanni: We offer a few different things at the Biobank. The sample archive is a collection of valuable patient samples that can be accessed for research. Our investigators can also access our physical infrastructure like our storage capabilities.

We have storage in our cryogenic liquid nitrogen freezers, as well as storage of -80. Any investigators who need to store their valuable samples in either one of these types of freezers can rent space from us, like these samples here which are collected from our COVID-19 Biobank samples.

How does the Biobank support Critical Care research?

Di Giovanni: We are partnered with our Critical Care department. One of the things we’re really excited about is to make a sample archive from patients who come into the Critical Care unit for care and we also are providing bioprocessing capabilities.

We have trained technical support staff and we have research infrastructure. Any researcher in Critical Care that needs to have access to someone to collect their samples and process them can talk to the Biobank and we can see what we could do to help them.

What do you hope the impact of the Biobank will be?

Di Giovanni: I hope that for new investigators who might not have a lot of resources to buy or operate equipment, they feel that they can come to the Biobank, they can access our storage capabilities and our freezers.

If they don’t have research staff that can collect samples from a Critical Care unit, for example, or any unit in the hospital they can come to us, we can do that. We have our bioprocessing suite here, where we can process their samples and store them in the freezer.

In the long term I hope our investigators will also access our sample archives, and I’d hope investigators from any institution can, and they can use those samples to accelerate their research.

What do you want people to know about Critical Care research?

Di Giovanni: We talked a lot about critical care as a society in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It really made a lot of us think about critical care bed numbers, and ventilators, and nurses.

What you have to understand about a critically ill patient is that they’re very sick. They have a life-threatening illness or disease, and they require a lot of care, and the way that a person responds to that care differs based on who they are.

Two critically ill patients might enter the hospital for the same reason. Let’s use COVID-19 as an example: One person might get better and go home. One person might pass away. So what is this happening to those people? What is biologically different that caused that difference in their outcome?

The Biobank is going to try to collect samples from people as they come in, as they’re very sick, as they’re receiving care, and monitor what their outcome is, as they either get better or as they might unfortunately pass away. Those samples will become the basis of our archive of a critically care biobank-focused archive, and we hope to use them to come up with a personalized medicine approach for those in critical care.

By: Marlene Leung and Ana Gajic