The Right Thing to Do:
Northwest BioTrust

If you’ve had a medical procedure — given a urine sample, had a blood test, undergone surgery — you may have wondered what, ultimately, happens to any specimens collected. The answer is that much of that blood, urine and post-surgical tissue is discarded. Sometimes, however, these samples — their use closely regulated by the government — are used for research.

As any scientist will tell you, these specimens are supremely important to medical investigations. Increasingly, medicine is molecular. Researchers are attempting to understand the genetic, protein-based, or metabolic underpinnings of diseases such as cancer so that they can tailor treatments for patients.

“This means that, on a practical level, the scientific need for biospecimens and associated health information has been growing dramatically,” says Stephen C. Schmechel, M.D., Res. ’01, Fel. ’03, Fel. ’06, Ph.D. Schmechel, a UW associate professor of pathology, directs Northwest Biospecimen, the University-based group tasked with collecting and processing research specimens.

There’s no doubt that these materials benefit researchers. Take UW Medicine otolaryngologist Eduardo Méndez, M.D., Res. ’05, who researches the genomics of head and neck cancer. Méndez has worked with Schmechel’s group for three years.

“We’ve been receiving samples that let us study recurring genetic mutations in patients’ tumors, and these samples give us a huge advantage over cell lines reproduced in the lab,” Méndez says. “The ability to study tumors directly makes our discoveries much more applicable for eventual therapies and cures.”

Today, Méndez and other U.S. researchers who use specimens — and who use patient records, another crucial source of information — are governed by federally mandated institutional review boards (IRBs). But the process, while it protects patients and their privacy, could be improved. That’s what UW Medicine aims to accomplish with the creation of a new program, Northwest BioTrust, which will partner with Northwest Biospecimen.

“The IRB determines what samples and records researchers can use. Sometimes, they require the researcher to get patient permission; other research projects don’t require that level of consent,” says John T. Slattery, Ph.D., vice dean for research. “With Northwest BioTrust, we’re going to raise the bar and ask every patient interested in supporting research to sign a consent form when they first enter the UW Medicine system.”

At present, Northwest BioTrust is under development; it’s expected to be up and running in the next two years. When fully implemented, it will streamline the authorization process. Northwest BioTrust also will be in step with — perhaps even exceed, in terms of rigor — proposed revisions to IRB rules under consideration by the federal government. Finally, Northwest BioTrust will provide an additional, significant benefit: patients will be able to indicate an interest in participating in clinical trials when they first enter UW Medicine.

“This ability to be involved in trials — we know it’s a real draw for some of our patients,” said Slattery. “We want to make it easier to sign up.”

Asked if the new consent system might result in fewer specimens and records for scientists to use, Slattery doesn’t hesitate. “Possibly fewer will be available,” he says. “But we know this is what our patients want, and it’s the right thing to do.”

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