Windber tissue bank expanding in size and impact for medical research

Stella Somiari (left), senior director of the biorepository, and research associates Sean Rigby and Katie Miller check specimens in one of the freezers at Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber on Sept. 15. 2017.

WINDBER – Even as the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber expands onto the national stage and branches research areas beyond breast cancer, the tissue bank remains as its hallmark.

This year, the former Windber Research Institute expanded its tissue bank capacity, installing additional liquid nitrogen freezers and another tank to hold the super-cooled liquefied gas.

Stella Somiari, senior director of the tissue repository, said the facility now holds about 70,000 specimens, including tissue and blood samples, from nearly 12,000 different individuals.

When the research center was founded in 2000, it was set up through federal Department of Defense funds earmarked through the efforts of the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha. The institute was established exclusively to study breast cancer as part of then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center – now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

That project and mission remain at the heart of Windber’s program. But Somiari said the tissue bank, also known as a biobank or biorepository, has expanded to broader research efforts, bringing specimens from a wide range of patients – both male and female.

Because of the additional research, the tissue bank’s already robust collection protocol had to be expanded to gather more data about patients’ conditions and personal information, Somiari said.

“With the tissue bank, everything changes depending on what you study,” Somiari said. 

“When we are collecting for the purpose of research, collection protocols have to be as broad as possible.”

The extra steps taken by Windber have qualified the lab to supply National Cancer Institute studies. The center is certified by the federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments program under the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

The certification also allows Windber’s program to accept specimens from patients still undergoing care during clinical trials. Before earning the CLIA recognition, Windber was limited to tissue from patients donated following treatment.

Windber’s biobank currently serves as the central repository for much of the research done by Department of Defense and a growing segment of federal cancer research programs. Scientists use the molecular information extracted from the cancer cells to look for patterns, Somiari said.

With frozen tissue and blood samples, researchers can see how different agents affect cancer growth without endangering patients.

“When you study on human tissue, the advantage is the human environment,” she said.

By comparing tissue samples and patients’ outcomes included in the biobank’s database, scientists can match the behavior of cancer types or patients from different demographic groups with the same cancer.

“They can study why some patients, after treatment, have remission and why some other patients have recurrence – and usually it metastasizes,” Somiari said.

Through Windber’s participation in the federal Applied Proteogenomics Organizational Learning and Outcomes network, the center will store samples from another 8,000 patients. 

The APOLLO network will study cancer at a molecular level never attempted by smaller research projects, Walter Reed’s Col. Craig Shriver said.

Shriver is director of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed. He is principal investigator for the Clinical Breast Care Project.

“Those tissues hold the key to the biology of how the cell unfolds,” he said.   

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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