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Raw Materials: iSpecimen Marketplace Platform Makes It Easy To Find Biospecimens


By Allison Proffitt 

February 24, 2017 | We are, in many ways, spoiled for choice. In nearly everything we buy we expect to be able to shop consolidated market places, with the wealth of our options organized before us. We want to be able to search and filter our own results. And we really like one-click shopping. 

The same is true for human samples. 

iSpecimen was born out of a project Chris Ianelli did during his residency at Brigham & Women's Hospital. We wanted to track human biological samples with a technology platform, to let researchers across the Brigham request into a system for blood, serum, or plasma that would otherwise be thrown away, Ianelli explained earlier this week at the Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference in San Francisco. 

Hospital groups were already filling biobanks with solid and liquid samples—whole blood, plasma, serum, urine, stool, whole tissue, frozen or fixed tissue, and more. Other practice groups were happy to share leftover samples, but didn't want the expense of banking them. A tech platform linking these various sources of sample would enable more research. 

Since 2009, iSpecimen has been doing just that. Researchers call in requests for specific sample types, iSpecimen staff search the databases of 250 hospitals, more than a dozen commercial labs, and blood banks and send out orders to the individual locations based on their supply: ten tissue samples from Massachusetts; 15 from Indiana; three from Wisconsin.

But Ianelli’s vision is even more self-serve. 

The company is building a user-facing search platform to let researchers do their own searching and ordering of samples, focusing on ease of use.

It’s a software problem. When you buy a flight on Kayak, you put in your search parameters, and filter the results with a series of sliders on the left side of the page, he told Bio-IT World. iSpecimen is creating the same user experience for researchers. 

The "sliders” Ianelli envisions include demographics, medications a patient was taking, procedures a patient has undergone, and specific medical conditions. Not ever biobank includes the same details, of course, but researchers should be able to quickly scan what data are available and choose the best samples for their needs.

For sample sources—biobanks, hospital systems, blood banks and more—there’s no cost to join. "It's a free tool for them to get liquidity happening," Ianelli said. When researchers buy sample, the proceeds are shared between the source and iSpecimen. 

Being part of the iSpecimen network also doesn't limit an institution's flexibility for its own samples, Ianelli said. The new marketplace interface will allow firewalls, letting groups use the marketplace internally, externally, or both. "If you only want your samples visible to your collaborators, we can do that," Ianelli said. 

Ianelli also believes that the feedback iSpecimen can give biobanks is immensely valuable: data on what kinds of samples to bank. 

For customers, iSpecimen takes on a fair amount of responsibility for quality assurance. Biobanks and other sample sources undergo physical audits of their processes, technology systems, and equipment before their inventory is included in the marketplace. Their certifications—CAP, ISO, etc.—are recorded. 

Sourcing is blinded to customers; they don't know which parts of an order were filled by which biobank. Samples are shipped to the iSpecimen facility, screened for quality, and consolidated for shipment to the customer. 

Ianelli expects the new customer-facing platform to rolled out with iSpecimen's biobank partners in late spring to early summer, and plans to soon add other iSpecimen services including prospective collection available through hospital EMRs and practice groups.

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