[News Focus] Extending biobank ecosystem key to precision medicine drive

By Sohn Ji-young

Experts say Korea needs to shape biobanking system in accordance with the needs of local biotech businesses

  • Published : Oct 29, 2017 - 16:15
  • Updated : Nov 13, 2017 - 16:36
Korea’s biobank system has enjoyed some success in contributing to academic findings, but at a forum in Seoul last week, experts in the field argued the state-run Korea Biobank must move beyond its current research focus if South Korea is to play a lead role in fields such as precision medicine

At the Korea Biobank Forum last week, they argued that administrators must provide more support to commercial operations in the biotech sector if the country is to make the most of the resource.

Over the past decade, leading countries in health care, including the US, UK and Japan, have established biobanking systems, which collect and store human biological samples such as tissue and genetic data for use in research. 

In Korea, the Ministry of Health and Welfare established a biobank system in 2008 under the Centers for Disease Control.


Biobanks acquire huge amounts of data, such as genetic and health records of patients with specific conditions like cancer and coronary heart disease. These are expected to play a foundational role in enabling precision medicine, which uses large datasets associated with certain diseases to define individual patterns of disease and susceptibility and hence tailor treatments to patients.

Korea’s biobanking system currently operates a nationwide network of 17 university-affiliated hospitals that collect biospecimens -- such as tissue, DNA and plasma -- from consenting patients. As of 2016, the National Biobank of Korea had collected biological samples from some 770,000 people, according to the KCDC.

But at last week’s forum, experts argued that the country’s system was overly focused on academic research, at the expense of other uses.

As of this year, the bank’s biological samples had been used in 1,915 R&D projects, according to the KCDC.

The projects have led to 751 published research papers, but the number of patent registrations stands at just 46, indicating that the biobank’s ties to the commercial biotech industry are much weaker than its academic links.

“Right now, Korea’s biobank is centered largely on academic research. It lacks knowledge of what kind of resources (biotech-related) businesses need and want from the institution,” said Kim Han-kyeom, a professor at Korea University’s College of Medicine who specializes in pathology.

Experts also more difficult for businesses -- compared to universities or research institutions -- to obtain regulatory approval to access the biobank’s resources.

“Businesses are obliged to first obtain the Institutional Review Board’s approval in order to access biological samples from the Korea Biobank. However, it’s nearly impossible for private firms to obtain IRB approval unless they are working on a state-commissioned project,” said Kim Tae-ho, CEO of local biotech venture Cure Therapeutics.

“Though Korea’s basic life sciences research is highly developed, it is not being translated into commercial opportunities. The biobank must work more closely with local biotech businesses to encourage their growth.”

The biotech executive suggested that the biobank should concentrate its resources on supporting drug development in key areas to create commercial value from its activities.

By Sohn Ji-young (