15.10. 2012 Kuukauden kasvo

Biobanker prepares for D-day

The Finnish Parliament passed the Biobanks Act at the beginning of October. A long time in preparation, the act will enter into force at the beginning of 2013, thus releasing millions of tissue samples of human origin and health data related to them for easier use in treatment and research purposes. Biobanks allow for tailoring the treatment to serve individuals better, but at the same time maintaining strict privacy protection.

Finland has strong traditions in genetic-epidemiologic research. Biobanks represent the next step in this tradition and allow for storing old diagnostic tissue samples in one place – a biobank. The new law will provide significant new opportunities to scientific research and drug development, as millions of existing samples can be studied using new analysis methods of molecular biology.

The biobank operations aim at creating benefit both for individuals and society. For example, in future the patient can receive tailored treatment for cancer which will also be more cost-efficient thanks to improved precision of diagnostics.

In the other Nordic countries the legislation has enabled biobank operations already earlier. The new law was preceded by years of preparatory work in Finland with which the University or Turku and the Hospital District of Southwest Finland have carefully familiarised themselves.

Perspectives from Europe

In 2008, Eero Vuorio, Professor of Molecular Biology and then Chancellor of the University of Turku, started as the Executive Manager of Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI). Acting as his right-hand woman Heli Salminen-Mankonen has actively contributed to the building of the European network of biobanks. These experiences are now available to Finns.

As a little girl, Dr Salminen-Mankonen dreamed of a career in horse grooming or as a veterinarian. Her tendency to asthma was against those dreams, and Heli went to study nursing science in the University of Turku. She defended her doctoral thesis at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in 2000 and has been a docent at the department since 2006.

“I ended up in the biobank project after being a member of Eero Vuorio’s research group since 1995. In general I have ended up in many posts and work projects rather than aimed at them in determined fashion”, says Dr Salminen-Mankonen who has made her career in the academic world.

A large number of bioscience experts concentrated in Turku has promoted Southwest Finland’s position in the frontline of research. Turku is also of suitable size for developing a biobank to be integrated into hospital services.

“We are creating a concept that can be copied by other hospital districts. It’s important that the services appear uniform, safe and professionally implemented, and take privacy protection issues into account.”

Heli Salminen-Mankonen knows the European biobank field. She is a member of the expert group of the University of Turku and Hospital District of Southwest Finland which is preparing to set up the Biobank of Southwest Finland.

Carefully prepared law

The preparation of the Finnish Biobanks Act began already in 2007. In the previous electoral period it proceeded to the Parliament, but expired with the election. The long preparatory work has provided a good opportunity to affect the wording of the law. Hence it should now be ideally suited e.g. to hospital environment. The law will enter into force at the turn of the year and the expectations are high.

“Hopefully we can within a few years introduce success stories created as a result of biobanks and how they have enabled better care of the patients.”

The law does not mean that any researcher group can set up a biobank. Setting up one requires a supporting statement from the National Committee on Medical Research Ethics. So there will not be a local trade union for biobankers in every city.

The information concerning a biobank will be collected into a public biobank register. Special attention has been paid to privacy protection in the preparation of the law, and researchers will never receive information with identifiers. Furthermore, the person who gives the sample has the right to affect the use of information concerning him or her.

“At request, the person who gives the sample shall receive information stating in which research project the information collected about him or her has been used, from which registers the information has been obtained, and what has been studied on the samples. The person who has given the sample can always deny the use of the samples.”

Dr Salminen-Mankonen reminds that from the point of view of an individual the opportunity to give samples is also a privilege.

“In the future they can provide valuable help to any Finn who falls ill.”

Back to the frontline

Some people suspect that biobanks mean giving away valuable information from Finnish researchers to global pharmaceutical companies. Dr Salminen-Mankonen does not share that opinion.

“Global pharmaceutical companies are the only players that are able to finance the expensive research of new and more effective drugs. Despite the strong traditions of genetic-epidemiologic research the law is entering into force at the last minute. If Finns will participate actively in the efficient integration of public health care patient records in the use of biobanks, we can get back to the frontline of biosciences.”

While working at BBMRI, Heli travelled much more than she does at present. She enjoys not having to travel on business so often.

“I’m so used to business trips that I don’t want to leave them altogether. But now I have more time for my family. The situation is particularly pleasing to our 7-year-old daughter. There’s also more time for staying at the summer cottage, picking mushrooms and other outdoor activities.”


Heli Salminen-Mankonen

• Born in Turku in 1969

• Master of Nursing Science from the University of Turku in 1998

• Doctor of Philosophy from the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology of the University of Turku in 2000

• Works as a Project Manager in the preparation of the Biobank of Southwest Finland