An Introduction to Pathology and Biobanking

May 14, 2014

In my previous post I described how I came to be a pathologist, scientist, and a biobanker. My colleagues have written fascinating posts about their roles on this blog. Many are scientists, some are pathologists and a few are biobankers too, but I don't think they explained the last two roles. So I will fill in that gap today:

Cancer patients meet many people at the BC Cancer Agency who have different roles in providing them care, advice, support. Amongst these people are the ‘front line’ physicians, such as medical oncologists and radiation oncologists. But there are also other types of physicians such as radiologists and pathologists, who contribute to care but rarely meet patients.

Pathology is one of many specialties that a physician can choose from after completing medical school. As with many medical specialties, pathology involves a commitment to a five-year residency training program to learn ‘laboratory medicine.’ I specialized in anatomic pathology, which meant I needed to become skilled in examining tissues to interpret abnormalities, diagnose the cause, predict the progress of the condition and provide advice on options for treatment. Today, my role as a pathologist in Victoria is to work both with colleagues in pathology departments in hospitals across Vancouver Island and with medical and radiation oncologists in the breast care team at the BC Cancer Agency Vancouver Island Centre to refine the initial diagnosis.

During their cancer journey, patients also meet people, including many of their immediate care team, who offer opportunities to partner in research with our scientists. This may happen before a patient arrives at the clinic, during their first visit, or later, when patients are approached to become involved in a study.

As you may have noticed amongst the many fascinating studies described by other bloggers, research often depends on access to tissues and related health records. This was not the case a decade or so ago when discoveries were mostly made by studying cells and models in the laboratory. Because we lacked the tools to effectively study tissues, things did not always stand up to analysis in human tumours, which slowed our progress.

But now, we can interrogate very small tissue samples, delve into the genome of individual cells and handle large amounts of information from many different patients. Cancer research has moved rapidly into a new era where all phases of research, from discovery and translation, to validation and application of new markers and therapies can work directly with human tissues and data. So all this means that tissues and data now provide the critical fuel for cancer research.

Biobanks (also known as biorepositories) are important to sustain our progress, and this is why I have become a ‘biobanker’. In this role I lead the BC Cancer Agency’s Tumour Tissue Repository (TTR) and coordinate the banking of tissues and data to support research with my biobank team.

Next week, I will share more about my role as a scientist and my own research.