Samples are available to researchers in just minutes
Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When Katherine Gibson-Corley gave birth to her second son, Miles, in June 2014, she also helped to advance the work of potentially dozens of researchers seeking to understand health conditions that affect women at all stages of their lives.

Throughout her pregnancy and during childbirth, Gibson-Corley donated tissue—blood, amniotic fluid, placental tissue and more—to the University of Iowa Women’s Health Tissue Repository, an on-site tissue bank that provides samples for scientists worldwide conducting research in women’s health.

“They make it really easy,” says Gibson-Corley, assistant professor of pathology in the UI Carver College of Medicine. “There’s nothing extra you have to do other than give a little more blood every once in a while, and then donate the placenta and other tissues at the time of childbirth.”

Donna Santillan, research assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, with her husband, Mark Santillan, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, direct the Iowa Women's Health Tissue Repository. This summer, they published a report in the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology outlining the repository's success in advancing women's health research and making the case that it should serve as a model for other academic medical centers.

Access to samples has been instrumental in UI researchers' success in obtaining seven funded grants and three patent applications, and the knowledge gained from the use of samples is leading to significant advances in the understanding of women’s health.

The Santillans’ report highlights advances made in the Maternal Fetal Tissue bank, part of the UI Women’s Health Tissue Repository, which currently holds samples from more than 1,800 women, 80 of whom enrolled in the program following multiple pregnancies. In its first four years of operation, the bank has been used in more than 20 research studies. Access to samples has been instrumental in UI researchers' success in obtaining seven funded grants and three patent applications, and the knowledge gained from the use of samples is leading to significant advances in the understanding of women’s health.

“The government has indicated that there’s not enough research into women’s health. Having samples on hand with the associated clinical information provides us with a powerful tool to better study all phases in women’s lives,” says Donna Santillan. “In areas such as pregnancy, having samples throughout the pregnancy gives us the best opportunity to better understand the factors affecting the health of the mother and baby.”

The Iowa Women's Health Tissue Repository is made up of four women’s health tissue banks: Well Woman Tissue Bank, Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Tissue Bank, Maternal Fetal Tissue Bank, and the Gynecologic Malignancies Tissue Bank.

Tissue samples for the repository are solicited from women who are already patients of UI Women’s Health. These samples are taken at the same time regular lab work is being conducted. For example, a technician would simply take enough blood for the repository sample when a draw is already being conducted, or placental tissue would be collected after delivery of a baby. Similarly, cord blood is collected after birth; the cord blood would normally be discarded.

Although samples are not linked to the donor by name, their medical history is attached to each donation, which provides important information to women's health researchers.

“If we want to study women who are over 30 and who have a history of preeclampsia, we can do that,” says Donna Santillan. “We go to the computer and fill out our search parameters, and the computer tells us where the sample is located and we just go to the freezer and pick it out.

“By having the samples and clinical information linked together in the bank, we are able to significantly increase the speed of research and to really enhance the types of questions that can be addressed,” she adds.

There are few biobanks in the United States dedicated to collecting samples from participants throughout their pregnancies, but the UI Hospitals and Clinics’ Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology first started its biobank initiative more than 30 years ago with a tumor bank.

UI researcher Justin Grobe and colleagues including Gibson-Corleyused samples from the repository to discover a potential early biomarker for preeclampsia. Their findings were first published online in the American Heart Association’s journal, Hypertension.

“The tool Donna and Mark have developed here is amazing,” says Grobe, assistant professor of pharmacology in the UI Carver College of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Heart Association. “In the space of roughly 18 months, we have been able to translate an idea on paper all the way to patented, clinically useful technologies. These advancements to women’s health would otherwise have taken more than 10 years.”

“Cell and animal studies have had key roles in biomedical research, but it’s not enough,” Mark Santillan adds. “They are not true reproductions of the human system. One of the best ways to do longitudinal research is with a large repository of samples and their demographic and clinical information.

“What we’re seeing is that the Iowa population is reflected in our tissue bank,” he says. “We are very grateful to the diverse group of women who donate their samples and information to advance women’s health research. If our model were replicated at other centers, we could make an even bigger difference.”

As a researcher herself, Gibson-Corley understands the significant advantages of having a resource like the tissue repository on-site, including cutting time and expense of studies and expanding the possibilities of women’s health research being conducted.

“It was good to be on that end, to be able to contribute something you know will make a difference down the road,” she says.