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A virtual biobank to accelerate NTD diagnostics development: an Infectious Thoughts interview

FIND, the global alliance for diagnostics, seeks to ensure equitable access to reliable diagnosis around the world. To facilitate and accelerate worldwide collaboration in reaching this goal, FIND recently launched the DxConnect Virtual Biobank, a collaborative, open-access platform launched to provide a global view of infectious disease samples available worldwide and to connect researchers and diagnostic developers who need these samples with the institutions that collect or store them. In this Infectious Thoughts interview, Kamran Rafiq from the ISNTD ask colleagues from FIND about the scope and aims of the DxConnect Virtual Biobank.

To find out more, please register and attend the upcoming ISNTD Connect on virtual biobanks:

"Accelerating development of diagnostics for NTDs: a virtual biobank to alleviate a critical bottleneck in test development and stimulate collaboration"

Prof Joseph Ndung’u (Executive Director, FIND Kenya)

Dominic Allen (DxConnect Virtual Biobank Project Lead, FIND)

Dr Aubrey Cunnington (Digital Diagnostics for Africa Network & Imperial College London)

Thursday 7th October 2021 - 14:00-15:30 UTC

Photo credit: FIND / George Muiruri © FIND 2021

Kamran Rafiq (KR): What is FIND hoping to achieve with the virtual biobank project?

FIND: Our key goal is to support and accelerate the development of high-priority diagnostics, especially in the field of Neglected Tropical Diseases where diagnostic gaps are massive and require concerted efforts to reach WHO 2030 targets and to bring us closer to disease control and elimination. To do so, the DxConnect Virtual Biobank aims to address one of the recognized bottlenecks faced by diagnostic developers: the difficulty of accessing suitable biological samples to develop and validate their tests.

Are there any geographies that you are prioritising, or is this really a worldwide, all-inclusive approach?

The vision is to work with a global network of institutions to build a database of sample collections available worldwide to maximize the use of existing resources, increase efficiency in sample access and stimulate research collaborations. It is designed to be a collaborative platform that is available freely, without use fee, to all stakeholders including academic, non-profit and industry sectors, to advance diagnostic development.

Has the age of COVID-19, with all the restrictions worldwide, catalysed/energised or indeed hindered this project?

The availability of suitable samples for diagnostic research and development was already a recognized unmet need across many NTDs and other infectious diseases. To meet that demand, FIND has established and expanded its biobank over the last 10 years, distributing high-quality samples to diagnostic developers for TB, malaria, fever and HCV, as well as collaborating with WHO on NTD collections.

Before COVID-19, we were already working on a new approach to support biobank capacity building in the countries – through a network of FIND integrated biobanks (FIB) – and on the virtual biobank concept to increase collaborations with institutions collecting and storing samples worldwide. But COVID-19 has been a catalyst for operationalizing the DxConnect Virtual Biobank. At the early stage of the pandemic, diagnostic developers worldwide struggled to access the samples they needed to assess the performance of their tests. We launched the platform at the end of 2020 to respond to that challenge and, in parallel, we supported institutions (e.g. in Peru and South Africa) to collect these high-priority samples.

Today, the platform includes 12 COVID-19 collections from registered institutions in eight different countries and we are now focusing our efforts on institutions holding NTD collections – the first of these were added in September 2021.

How does this project speak to the 3 shifts contained within the WHO NTD guidelines to 2030?

- Shift from a silo specific vertical disease focus approach to a more cross-cutting multidisciplinary multisector approach: the project aims to improve collaboration between stakeholders in diagnostic development across all NTDs. And the platform itself is disease-agnostic, so the ultimate goal is to add collections for other global health priority diseases, such as TB and malaria.

- Shift from an accountability measure of success through process to a much more impact-based measure of success: new or more accessible and effective diagnostics will have a direct and measurable impact on the communities, not only to ensure the detection of cases and to provide them with timely and appropriate care, but also to provide effective data to guide and evaluate public health decisions and interventions and advance towards the control and elimination targets.

- Shift from external-led expertise to a country-owned model - in order to leverage political will and release sovereign capital: institutions collecting and storing samples in the countries will benefit from the increased visibility of their collections while maintaining full control and ownership. They will be able to decide on access and benefit sharing measures and to promote their interests such as research collaboration opportunities or participation in diagnostic test evaluation programmes.

Photo credit: FIND / George Muiruri © FIND 2021

How can people, organisations and potential collaborators get in touch with FIND to engage further with this project?

Any institutions interested in making their NTD sample collections and research interests visible can directly register on the platform to grow the DxConnect Virtual Biobank network. Our team is available to help you register or answer any questions:

We also warmly welcome feedback and collaboration opportunities which could help raise awareness of the DxConnect Virtual Biobank and contribute to meet its goal. We want the platform to be driven by diagnostic development needs and are currently consulting experts in the field of NTDs. If you are an NTD expert or a diagnostic developer, your opinions and expertise would be very valuable, so let’s get in touch!

Who do you feel would benefit from attending the ISNTD Connect session that you will be participating in, on Oct 7th 2021 at 15:00 UK time?

Anyone working in or in contact with institutions that collect, store or use samples for R&D purposes – research institutes, hospitals, universities, non-profit organizations, laboratories, clinical trial research teams, biobanks, diagnostics companies etc. – but also any organizations dedicated to addressing NTDs and willing to contribute with their expertise and/or network. So essentially the NTD community.

There is no need to be a potential “end-user” of the platform or biobanking expert to benefit from the session. We look forward to discussing this initiative with the ISNTD members.


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