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Biobank Samples for Genetic Testing to Enable Accurate Diagnosis of Rare Diseases

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 13 Jun 2022
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Image: Helsinki Biobank collects and releases biological samples with associated data for high-quality biomedical research (Photo courtesy of Helsinki Biobank)
Image: Helsinki Biobank collects and releases biological samples with associated data for high-quality biomedical research (Photo courtesy of Helsinki Biobank)

Treatment of rare diseases requires accurate diagnosis which is often challenging to achieve. Now, a unique collaboration has pioneered new ways to find individuals in biobanks who may benefit from genetic testing to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

In a collaborative effort, Blueprint Genetics (Espoo, Finland) and the University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland) launched the Rare3K project in July 2021. Rare3K aims to bring efficiency to rare disease diagnostics by connecting large amounts of data from biobanks, healthcare, and genetic diagnostics. The study aims to develop algorithms for analyzing electronic medical records (EMR) to find individuals who would be likely to receive a molecular diagnosis with genetic testing. The Helsinki Biobank cohort is approximately 100,000 individuals, and the study aims to select and sequence 3,000 donors representing the various rare disease groups. The data and samples in the research project are de-identified for genetic analysis and the information necessary to re-identify patients is only known by Helsinki Biobank. The genetic testing results are given to the biobank and, from there, to the Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) physicians involved in the patients’ treatment for follow-up.

Rare3K, in its first phase, has focused on patients with a diagnosis or clinical suspicion of Wilson’s disease, growth disorders, transthyretin amyloid (aTTR) polyneuropathy, or inherited retinal dystrophy. These rare diseases were chosen based on ongoing development of targeted therapies for their treatment. To date, over 1,000 samples from the Helsinki Biobank have been sequenced and analyzed. Novel diagnoses were obtained for 10% of the cohort of patients with growth disorders, and 8% for inherited retinal dystrophies, including patients with formerly inconclusive or lacking genetic test results. In all four cohorts, previously known genetic diagnoses were also confirmed. As part of the initiative, expert clinicians from the HUS will follow up with the diagnosed patients to discuss future clinical care.

In addition, the study has helped obtain novel information about diagnostic yields as well as the correlation between clinical symptoms and genetic alterations. Finnish biobanks store hundreds of thousands of DNA samples linked with comprehensive clinical information from hospital registries. This has proven to be an invaluable resource for medical research. The data will be further utilized for the development of algorithms that can accelerate finding those individuals for whom genetic testing would likely yield an accurate diagnosis.

“We at Helsinki Biobank and HUS are extremely pleased about Rare3k initiative and its potential clinical impact,” said professor Olli Carpén, Scientific Director of Helsinki Biobank and Principal Investigator of Rare3K. “Biobanks are often regarded as research infrastructures or just repositories of human specimens. This initiative shows that biobanks can serve as a bridge between research and clinical care. With help of expert clinicians the initiative paves path to individualized medicine and provides benefit to biobank sample donors.”

“The first results from the Rare3K research initiative demonstrate the great benefits of this new type of collaboration between biobanks, hospitals, and diagnostic laboratories,” added Samuel Myllykangas, PhD, Blueprint Genetics General Manager and Executive Director of Strategy. “We are, however, just getting started and look forward to continuing our plans to develop algorithms that could transform the way patients are directed to genetic testing. This is a unique opportunity to help improve access to diagnosis and novel treatments for patients.”

Related Links:
Blueprint Genetics 
University of Helsinki 

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