This year we’re celebrating 10 years of the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. By collecting tissue samples from people affected by breast cancer and making them available to researchers, our Tissue Bank accelerates progress towards faster diagnosis and better treatments.

It’s now the UK’s largest collection of high-quality tissue, breast cells and blood samples from breast cancer patients. But where did it all begin and how can it change the future of breast cancer?

We’ve asked Professor Valerie Speirs, who is Chair of Molecular Oncology at the University of Aberdeen and co-principal investigator of our Tissue Bank and Dr Jenny Gomm, Cell Culture Programme leader at the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Barts Cancer Institute to help us trace it back.

The beginnings

‘The idea to establish a breast cancer tissue bank first came from a one-day meeting that took place in London in November 2006. This meeting brought together 56 of the UK’s most influential breast cancer experts who identified the key gaps and priorities in breast cancer research,’ explains Valerie.

‘They wanted to understand what research could have the greatest impact on improving the lives of people with breast cancer.’

These experts found that the most significant barrier to accelerating progress was a shortage of high-quality breast cancer tissue. From this idea our Tissue Bank was born. The first call for applications to establish it was announced in November 2008.

Work behind closed doors

For the first two years, the Tissue Bank was closed for requests from researchers. ‘It was hectic but exciting times for the Tissue Bank team trying to get it off the ground,’ says Valerie. Coordinated by the University of Leeds, the team brought together four centres based in Leeds, Dundee, Nottingham and London, who formed the original Tissue Bank.

A key part of this behind the scenes work involved developing and aligning standard operating procedures and ethical approvals. A special Tissue Bank Operations group met every Thursday morning to monitor progress. Valerie, who now jointly leads our Tissue Bank with Professor Louise Jones, was proud to oversee the launch of the Tissue Bank and start providing tissue samples donated by people with breast cancer to the research community.

Significant moments in our Tissue Bank history

‘I have three most memorable moments,' says Valerie. ‘The first was having the honour and privilege to be one of the researchers chosen to be involved in starting and running the Tissue Bank. The second was sitting in front of my computer watching the count down to the launch of the Tissue Bank’s website.

‘And the third was the first tissue request we fulfilled. It was from Dr James Flanagan of Imperial College London and was very complex. James requested 20 vials of frozen tissues and 1792 microscopy slides with tissue for his research. And all had to have over 70% tumour! It tested the Tissue Bank systems to the absolute limits but we learned from this, and it helped us improve.’

Jenny adds, ‘I have been with the bank a long time so there are many! One of the things that stands out is remembering the early days when we were working so hard to amass cells and tissues. The many evenings spent working late to collect tissues, freezing down samples and handing over the remainder to me for cell isolation. Then, if we had any energy left, sharing a bottle of wine’.

Keeping up with progress in science

Over the last 10 years, the team has worked hard keep up with the latest advancements in science to make sure the Tissue Bank can keep up with researchers’ demand.

Jenny explains: ‘Requests from researchers studying the normal and malignant breast have become more and more sophisticated over the years. In the early days, people were happy just to have tissue samples or primary breast cells for their experiments in the lab. But as science has evolved and technology has developed, requests have become much more complex, particularly in the creation of 3D models using normal breast cells.’

Sometimes, to test their ideas and theories and to better understand the disease, researchers can have very specific requirements for types of tissues and data related to them. Over the years the Tissue Bank team had to learn to manage expectations. They would love to be able to fulfil every single request but this isn’t always possible.

Valerie adds: ‘Everyone involved with the Tissue Bank is an active researcher, so we know and understand the research landscape. This means we have been able to adapt and evolve over the last 10 years to meet the need of researchers and we will continue to do this.’

One of a kind

‘It’s such a unique project,’ says Valerie. ‘Especially our cell culture programme which helps us gain even more insight into the breast cancer. I know of no other tissue bank that has this. We are a tight team and work well together with shared vision to make outcomes for breast cancer patients the very best they can be.

‘The type of projects the Tissue Bank supports are phenomenal and I’m confident that at least one of these will provide a new breakthrough for the women and men who are diagnosed with breast cancer.’

 

The Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank is generously supported by funding from Asda Tickled Pink and the Garfield Weston Foundation. We would also like to acknowledge the past support of Walk the Walk, a founding partner of the Tissue Bank alongside Asda Tickled Pink.

But we still need further support and donations to keep investing in projects like the Tissue Bank – please donate now.

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