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Treasury of Science – Opening of Germany’s Largest Biorepository for Health Research

The new Central Biorepository for the German National Cohort (GNC; German abbreviation: NAKO) was opened on October 24, 2018 at Helmholtz Zentrum München. With a capacity for around 21 million biosamples, it is the largest storage facility of its kind in Germany – a scientific treasure for the medicine of the future. The building functions like a central treasury. The biosamples are stored in huge tanks in the biorepository, which features a sophisticated cooling system and high-tech logistics. The opening ceremony took place in the presence of Dr. Johannes Eberle from the Bavarian Ministry of Science and the Arts.

f.l.t.r.: Prof. Dr. Matthias H. Tschöp (CEO Helmholtz Zentrum München), Prof. Dr. Annette Peters (Chair of the board of the GNC Health Study), Dr. Johannes Eberle (Bavarian Ministry of Science and the Arts) © M. Balk/ Helmholtz Zentrum München

The new biorepository was inaugurated after three years of construction. It will hold a scientific treasure consisting of about 21 million biosamples, which will be collected in the course of the long-term German National Cohort Study and stored over a period of 30 years. "Due to its enormous dimensions and the Germany-wide orientation, the GNC Study is attracting a great deal of international attention and will further enhance the reputation of medical research in Bavaria and Germany. The importance of biosamples for modern medical research can hardly be overestimated, especially if, as here, they are available for a representative population cross-section in high quality and contain a large amount of standardized examination data. I am certain that this biosample and data repository will be in safe hands at Helmholtz Zentrum München," said Dr. Johannes Eberle at the opening ceremony, where he wished all participants "much success with this state-of-the-art biorepository".

“The biorepository is a biomedical archive for future generations and thus an investment in the medicine of the future. The mass of data is necessary to conduct an in-depth investigation of the molecular pathogenesis of various diseases and to draw conclusions for personalized medicine," said Professor Matthias H. Tschöp, scientific director of Helmholtz Zentrum München. "At best, we will be able to answer questions in the future for which we do not have any answers today – or that we have not yet asked," added Tschöp.

The German National Cohort Study – origin of the biodata

Since 2014, the GNC Study has been conducting medical examinations of women and men between the ages of 20 and 69 drawn at random from the population registers at 18 study centers throughout Germany and questioning them about their living conditions. By the middle of next year, blood and other biomaterials from 200,000 people will be available for the development of biomarkers for the early detection of diseases, for example. Each participant generates up to nine different biosamples, which in turn are divided into more than 100 partial samples. This means that ideally stored biosamples will also be available in the future.

“The GNC Study is an extraordinary research project, organized by a network of German research institutions, which has brought together the collected epidemiological expertise in Germany," said Professor Annette Peters, chair of the board of the GNC Health Study and director of the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Zentrum München, describing the project. "The aim is to investigate chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, rheumatism, infections and depression more closely in order to improve prevention, early detection and treatment of these widespread diseases," said Peters.

Two storage systems preserve the biosamples at sub-zero temperatures

At the opening event, the core of the biorepository, the fully-automated -180°C storage unit in which most of the NAKO's blood samples are to be stored in up to 23 nitrogen tanks, was open for inspection by the participants. Each of these tanks can hold around one million samples. Another semi-automated -80°C storage unit can hold around 2.7 million samples. A special robot, which also functions at ultra-low temperatures, takes over the storage and retrieval process so that samples can be taken quickly and safely for scientific purposes.

“The complete cold chain, from blood collection to storage, is unique worldwide in a study of this size. From my point of view, this system with its innovative technology is a real quantum leap. Thanks to our system, researchers will be able to make use of biosamples of the highest quality for decades to come," said Peters. "This creates the best conditions for a better understanding in the future of how diseases develop and how this knowledge can be used for individualized prevention."

Secure data administration through a state-of-the-art laboratory management system

“Our state-of-the-art laboratory information and management system monitors every step from sample collection to storage. Each sample tube is marked with an individual barcode and can therefore be found at any time," said Dr. Andreas Hörlein, head of the biorepository, during the tour. The information from the medical examinations and biosamples is stored as pseudonymized data.

With the operation of the Central Biorepository as part of the GNC Study, Helmholtz Zentrum München puts scientific expertise and state-of-the-art infrastructure at the service of health research.

For further information please watch our video.

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

Die NAKO Gesundheitsstudie (kurz: NAKO) ist eine deutschlandweite Langzeit-Bevölkerungsstudie (Dauer 20-30 Jahre) mit 200.000 Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmern. Seit 2014 werden in der NAKO zufällig aus den Melderegistern gezogene Männer und Frauen zwischen 20 und 69 Jahren bundesweit in 18 Studienzentren medizinisch untersucht und nach ihren Lebensumständen befragt. Ziel ist es, chronische Erkrankungen, wie zum Beispiel Krebs, Diabetes, Herz-Kreislauf-Erkrankungen, Rheuma, Infektionen und Depression genauer zu erforschen, um Prävention, Früherkennung und Behandlung dieser in der Bevölkerung weit verbreiteten Krankheiten zu verbessern. Das multizentrische Projekt wird vom Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, den beteiligten Ländern und der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft gefördert.

The Institute of Epidemiology (EPI) assesses genetic, environmental and lifestyle risk factors which jointly determine the occurrence of major chronic diseases. The focus is on the development and progression of metabolic, respiratory and allergic diseases, as well as heart diseases and mental health. The goal is to understand the molecular underpinning of disease better and to translate this knowledge into personalized approaches of prevention as well as polices to improve health. Research builds on the unique resources of the KORA cohort, the KORA myocardial infarction registry, and the KORA aerosol measurement station. Aging-related phenotypes have been added to the KORA research portfolio within the frame of the Research Consortium KORA-Age. Moreover, the institute makes use of the birth cohorts GINI and LISA. It plays a leading role in the planning and setting up of the German National Cohort and builds the NAKO biorepository.

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