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The most revered baseball legends include the greats: Mickey Mantle, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Joe DiMaggio. Baseball trading cards with their images—bought for mere pennies on a warm day from the corner store—were pieces of history fans could hold in their hands. Tossed was the stale gum but cherished were the faces of Mantle, Jackson and DiMaggio frozen in the perfect batting stance. Generations later, delicately pulled from an old shoebox in the attic, the cards are sought by fans of all ages who spend thousands of dollars to own that small piece of history again.
Long ago, doctors and researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital started collecting their own piece of history, with help from the hospital’s patients. The patients’ contribution to history was even more valuable than the most pristine Mantle card: They donated samples that could help researchers find cures for catastrophic childhood diseases.
The shoebox in the attic holding those precious trading cards is a reality at St. Jude, where it is called the Tissue Bank.
“This vital resource enables numerous landmark studies of the biology of pediatric diseases and is essential to finding improved therapies and cures for childhood cancer and other diseases,” says Pat Pope, of Pathology and the lab’s supervisor. “The Tissue Resources Laboratory manages the hospital’s Tissue Bank, where we carefully process, distribute, bank and release tumor samples and normal tissue from patients being treated on St. Jude studies.”
Samples processed by the Tissue Resources Laboratory include bone marrow and peripheral blood samples from children with leukemia, solid tumor samples, and serum, plasma and urine from current and previous patients to be used in research by St. Jude investigators and their collaborators. During a child’s long treatment schedule, the bank processes samples used to monitor levels of minimal residual disease, which assesses a patient’s response to therapy.
When investigators need samples from the Tissue Bank for research, they request them from the Tissue Resources Committee, which reviews and approves each appeal.
“The Tissue Resources Laboratory staff determines which samples fit the investigator’s criteria, and after study approval, retrieves the samples from the freezers and releases them to the investigator,” Pope says.
Through the years, the Tissue Bank has undergone continuous evolution. About a decade ago, the Tissue Bank became an entity within Pathology. Because early samples were collected from different laboratories that routinely froze and stored samples, the bank contains some samples that date to the 1970s. When the Tissue Bank became a laboratory within the Pathology department, it allowed the creation of a large and valuable resource of samples and sample information that can be used in studies to cure pediatric cancer.
Thousands of children have been treated at St. Jude, and the Tissue Bank has processed and stored more than 50,000 samples collected from consenting patients with cancer, hematological and related diseases. As the bank has expanded, a sophisticated database has been developed that allows staff to search for samples according to the exact criteria of each investigator.
“To fully understand what turns a normal cell into a cancer cell, and to develop new treatment approaches, there is no substitute for examining samples obtained from patients,” says Charles Mullighan, MD, of Pathology and the lab’s medical director. “Very few tissue banks are of the size and quality of ours. Our samples are an incredibly valuable resource, are highly sought after and have enabled many groundbreaking studies in cancer research.”
Like that passionate baseball card collector whose eyes gleam at the prospect of owning a mint-condition DiMaggio card, St. Jude researchers teeter on pins and needles hoping that perhaps the next sample they use in their experiment could be the key that unlocks a disease’s mystery.
“We are helping the research, which is in line with the St. Jude mission statement,” says Cynthia Walker, a medical technologist in the lab.
The Tissue Bank is currently participating in a protocol that requires banking samples from thousands of children treated at St. Jude decades ago. The protocol’s aim is to measure the health effects experienced by adult patients who survived pediatric cancer.
Equipment like 10 liquid nitrogen freezers, five negative 80 degree freezers and a refrigerator keep the samples cool and ready for their most important roles.
“We feel honored and privileged to play an important role in St. Jude’s noble mission,” Pope says. “The events that make us most proud are when investigators are able to publish innovative findings obtained from research using the banked samples that were released to them.”
Reprinted from Corridors magazine, Summer 2009