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Breaking down barriers to translational research

Centralized biobank at St. Michael’s Hospital aims to enhance quality of research across Unity Health

Toronto, December 18, 2019

By Anna Wassermann

Dr. Valeria Di Giovanni
Dr. Valeria Di Giovanni

A basic research scientist, Dr. Valeria Di Giovanni understands how difficult it can be to collect, store and access patient samples for research. Now, at St. Michael’s Hospital, she’s hoping to improve the process.

As the hospital’s first biobank manager, Dr. Di Giovanni is creating a centralized Biobank, which is a repository of patient samples for biological research. Currently, scientists at St. Michael’s operate a number of biobanks throughout the institution, but they’re costly and time consuming to maintain.

“Running a biobank requires time and money to consent patients, collect samples, find freezer space and properly store the samples,” said Dr. Di Giovanni. “With such tremendous support for biobanking here at St. Michael’s, it seems only natural that we make one biobank and have everybody share the costs to save time and money.”

With a centralized Biobank, scientists can offload the collection and maintenance responsibilities to the Biobank. Once scientists gain approval for their projects from the hospital’s Research Ethics Board, they’ll consult with the Biobank to obtain the samples they need.

In addition, the Biobank hopes to collect and store valuable samples to create a sample archive. A well-stocked archive can enable scientists to complete their work quickly to generate new knowledge and discovery in a shorter period of time, said Dr. Di Giovanni.

“The goal is for scientists to be able to come to us and say, ‘I have this hypothesis I’d like to test, I need blood samples from 50 patients with sepsis,’ and we can get this to them right away,” she said.

The Biobank is in its early stages of development — Dr. Di Giovanni has just started acquiring the lab bench space and freezers — but already, she said she’s excited about the potential for breaking down barriers to translational research. When she was a PhD candidate, Dr. Di Giovanni said she often struggled to find ways to connect her research to human disease.

“Increasingly in basic science, there’s a need to collaborate with medical science and work towards translational research,” said Dr. Di Giovanni. “But it’s difficult to test your hypothesis in patient populations if you aren’t a clinician.”

This frustration was one of a few factors that inspired Dr. Di Giovanni to shift careers from conducting research to helping facilitate it. She started to work in biobanks two years ago and emphasizes her passion for this field.

Since joining St. Michael’s in April, Dr. Di Giovanni has spent much of her time getting to know the institution. Having met with dozens of scientists and research leadership, she said she’s impressed with the range of research.

Dr. Erica Conte, senior manager of Projects, Grants and Awards in the Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation, said it’s this diversity that makes the promise of a centralized biobank so exciting. Dr. Conte was one of the first to identify the need for a centralized biobank, pointing to the potential for even greater efficiency, collaboration and quality of research.

“Researchers who operate their own biobanks develop individual policies, procedures and standards for collecting and storing their samples,” said Dr. Conte. “A centralized biobank establishes consistent standards for everyone, ensuring the best possible quality of samples and therefore, research.”

Dr. Ori Rotstein, vice-president of Research and Innovation at Unity Health Toronto, said he’s excited to see how a centralized biobank will contribute to the continued production of impactful research and innovation at St. Michael’s.

“Our focus at Unity Health Toronto is to generate new knowledge and then translate that knowledge to our patients and our communities,” said Dr. Rotstein. “We’re hopeful that a centralized biobank will expand the scope of our translational research, leading to improved patient outcomes.”

While Dr. Di Giovanni’s first order of business is enhancing research at St. Michael’s, in time, she said she hopes to compile enough samples in the Biobank to provide access to scientists across the network and one day, the world.

“It’s great to think that our biobank could be a place that scientists from all over come to retrieve samples that’ll have a tremendous impact on patient outcomes,” said Dr. Di Giovanni. “I’m excited to get started.”


This story is one of many we’re highlighting to share discoveries led by our Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. The Keenan is home to basic science and translational research at Unity Health. Our researchers target common and high burden illnesses that are important to patients and strive to make discoveries that will improve patients’ lives. The Keenan: Driven by discovery. Share our stories using #TheKeenanDiscovery.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

About Unity Health Toronto

Unity Health Toronto, comprised of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, works to advance the health of everyone in our urban communities and beyond. Our health network serves patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education. For more information, visit www.unityhealth.to.


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