An ambitious €170m network linking European biobanks and related information resources to connect researchers across the continent is to be established.

Backed by €5m of funding from the European Commission, the European Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Infrastructure (BBMRI), will establish a large scale network to enable the sharing and access to human biological samples across Europe.

The infrastructure will connect major biobanks, molecular resources and biocomputing centres to ensure that the samples are linked to existing databases, scientific literature and statistical expertise.

The new network will allow researchers to access information about millions of human biomolecular samples across the EU in an aim to identify disease genes, enhance the development of more effective treatments and reduce undesired side effects.

Professor Zatoukal, from the Medical University of Graz in Germany, the main coordinator of the project, said the key aim is to build a huge interface to enable cutting edge research to take place.

He told E-Health Europe: “So far, more than 51 members including universities, research centres, ministries and research councils and 182 associated partners from 28 different European countries are involved. It is a really huge project.”

Currently, existing national collections suffer from fragmentation and under utilisation due to limited access by investigators and lack of commonly applied standards. This has slowed research into potential new treatments.

However, by linking up the collections, Professor Zatoukal believes there are many benefits. He said: “The network will provide really excellent biomedical research resources and the best quality of samples that technology can deliver, it will allow researchers looking at disease to compare data across borders and undoubtedly increase the speed and efficiency of research.”

The BBMRI has received €5m from the European Commission for the preparatory phase of the project, which involves developing a detailed plan of the infrastructure, agreeing on standards and developing the operational concept before developing contracts for the member states.

Zatoukal said: “The preparatory stage should be completed by the end of 2010 and the project will never really be over as we will be continuously developing. However, the key elements of the network will be available by 2012.”

The construction stage is then likely to take up to four years, where costs could amount to €170m to be raised mostly at state member level.

“There are also several challenges to face when setting up the network,” Zatoukal said, “How to agree standards between the countries, defining legal requirements and establishing data protection systems.”

He said: “The data and sample will remain where it has been collected so that it can be updated and the system will provide a firewall that prevents researchers going back to the original source.”

“Once it has been approved by the local ethics committee and is further along in the project we will also be looking at making the information publicly accessible online in the form of aggregated data.”