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OBNE20 Blog Series: Raisa Serpi, Biobank Borealis

Oulu Bioscience Networking Event 2020 (OBNE20) has been replaced by a blog series which highlights Innovative interdisciplinary research activities in Oulu. Enjoy!

In Finland, biological samples (such as blood, saliva and tissue biopsies) and associated patient data have been collected with the donor’s consent for decades by different organizations, usually hospitals. Despite their indescribable research value, these samples have not been utilized as much as one would expect. In this month’s OBNE blog post we will take a look into the world of biobanking with the director of Biobank Borealis – Raisa Serpi.

Finnish Biobanks

Currently there are 10 biobanks operating in Finland. The highest regulatory element is the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira), whose purpose is to supervise the biobanking operations. Biobank Borealis has its headquarters in Oulu, and collects and stores samples from the whole of Northern Finland. Established in 2015, Borealis is still a newcomer in the field. Recently, Biobank Borealis was appointed a new director, as PhD Raisa Serpi took the lead:”The biobank is pretty much like a start-up company. We are growing fast and eagerly trying to build an infrastructure to serve the needs of our scientists.“ 

Raisa Serpi

Raisa holds an MSc degree from biology with the specialization in animal physiology and genetics. She got her PhD diploma from the University of Oulu, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and has done several post docs after. Her research has always involved mouse models, and early on her career she developed an interest to the histopathology of diseases. This interest led her to seek special education in mouse tissue histopathology from the Helmholtz German Mouse Clinic in München. Raisa’s past workplaces include Biocenter Oulu Transgenic Core Facility and Professor Heikki Ruskoaho’s and Peppi Karppinen’s research groups, where she studied cardiac function and metabolism. Raisa advises students to trust their guts:”Do what you’re the most interest in, and the opportunities will eventually open up. Updating your skill book can generate unexpected opportunities years later.

Borealis holds major pathological and serum sample collections, of which pathological collection contains 1.8 million samples from 500 000 patients and serum collection ~2 million samples from almost a million pregnant mothers. Pathological samples are typically tissue sections from different kinds of tumors and cancers. Earliest pathological samples originate from the 70’s, when Oulu University Hospital (OYS) started collecting them. Borealis also has several on-going custom sample collections, stemming from research needs, that are usually in the form of serum, plasma and fresh tissue samples. COVID-samples from patients have also found their way to the archives of Borealis. When associated with patient data, these samples become even more valuable for biomedical research. “Luckily in Finland – and Northern Finland specifically – patients are extremely research-oriented and readily give permission to sample collections.” Raisa joyfully exclaims.

The typical path of a sample begins naturally from the patient. Permission and transparency are vital in every step. If the patient agrees to give their sample, it is then stored in Borealis sample archives. In order to have access to the stored patient samples, researcher needs to write a research plan on how the samples are going to be used. The research plan goes through the Scientific board of Borealis, who either accepts or declines the plan. If everything is OK with the research plan, researcher can have access to the samples. The story of samples does not end here. Once the studies are published, the produced data becomes a property of the biobank and the value of samples increases as more knowledge is associated with them.

Biobank samples

So why the patient samples are not utilized more in the research setting? The biggest challenge is the legislation: “Currently we are bound by several, partially outdated and even contradicting laws and regulations in national and EU level, and the problem is how to enforce them all even when they don’t totally agree with each other” Raisa explains. Even more philosophical questions arise also from a recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), since raw DNA-data is considered personal data. “It is everyone’s benefit that the samples are used – the value of samples is generated through research but how to unify legislation in a manner that would generate least amount of bureaucracy and manage to protect the security of data?” Raisa ponders. A new legislative proposal trying to unify and update all laws concerning biobanking is underway, but the corona situation will most likely delay this proposal severely.

For the time being, Borealis keeps on doing what it does best, collecting more samples for future studies and helping scientists with their research needs. “If you are searching for human samples to make your next research paper even better, please don’t hesitate to contact me or our national coordinator FinBB’s one-stop-shop Fingenious (

– Interview by Riikka Halmetoja

Images of Raisa Serpi and Biobank samples by Raisa Serpi
Image of Finnish Biobanks: