Medical research is hard. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of patience. It also takes a lot of patients. (Sorry. I had to.) Performing a study is pretty much the same thing we’re taught in high school science class about the scientific method: ask a question, form a hypothesis, conduct an experiment and come to a conclusion. Only, when actual researchers do this, it’s on a considerably larger scale and is much more complicated. This is part of why it can take years for research to be published and even longer before it’s a staple in practicing medicine. Biobanks are excellent tools that can help speed up the process and make it a little easier to results, and fortunately, there are biobanks for bipolar disorder.
A biobank is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. They are physical locations that house biological specimens: tissue, DNA samples, blood, etc. There are dozens of them all around the world. Having access to a biobank can make the life of a researcher that much easier. In areas like psychological research, most researchers have to spend time and money finding participants and/or specimens on their own. Then any factors they want to exclude like substance abuse problems or current depressive phase, etc. have to be taken out of the sample. With biobanks, the information and specimen types are already categorized and ready to go. It’s like a frozen dinner, only it doesn’t taste like microwave when it’s ready.
The goal of a bipolar disorder biobank is to combat the fact that a good deal of patients with bipolar disorder are still waiting years for the correct diagnosis even after seeking treatment. After diagnosis, there is still the process of finding the right treatment. Different patients respond differently to the various medications used to treat bipolar disorder. A few don’t respond to medication at all. If we’re able to find a way to determine any of these factors from the beginning, the prognosis for a bipolar patient can look a lot brighter, and the current mood is in support of building up these biobanks.
So how does it work?
As the name indicates, it works a lot like a bank. Research labs affiliated with the biobanks conduct research, and all the results are collected and archived pretty much into perpetuity. Since the collection is not just for one particular study, specimens do not have to conform to specific factors. Any information is good information.
To study bipolar disorder most effectively, there are two types of information stored: biological and survey-based. Biological includes all of the concrete evidence like brain scans and DNA samples. Survey-based data include all other information from medical history to symptoms and treatments, basically anything you would be asked about in a traditional research project. Then all of your personal identifying information is taken out and the data are assigned a number. From there researchers looking for your specific characteristics (bipolar I, single-episode, non-psychotic, etc.) can search through the biobank information and get what they need to move ahead to analysis. Those results are also banked and we are one step closer to getting answers.
These answers will not be given to the participant directly. You’re not going to get a phone call from a researcher who uses your information down the line to say that they have figured out that your gene configuration responds the best to this type of treatment. Not only do they not know who you are, but that’s just not how it works. Projects like biobanks are broad-scoped. What is likely to happen is that research will be published, then others will see if they can replicate the findings and possibly add to them. From there, medical associations and physicians read the articles and decide what action to take. So it won’t be the researcher that calls you, but some day it could be your doctor that uses that research to decide on your treatment. Since the biobanks make the research easier, the information travels faster and we, as patients, get to reap the benefits that much more quickly.
There are several biobanks around the world that are working with bipolar disorder research. The most prominent in the U.S. is the Mayo Clinic’s Bipolar Disorder Biobank. Other biobanks conducting research on bipolar disorder are the UK Biobank in Stockport, England and Trinity Biobank out of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
Research isn’t limited to bipolar patients. Bipolar disorder doesn’t just affect a patient, so researchers also look for parents, caregivers, children and so on. If you’re interested in participating in research for a bipolar biobank, contact the one nearest you and they’ll tell you how to get started.
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