National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank

The door to the vault is open at the National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank, an invitation that encourages more study and research efforts from all directions in the quest to tackle malignant mesothelioma.

Data and specimens from more than 1,200 cases are available at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine‘s new bank, whose philosophy for sharing has created a unique opportunity for studying mesothelioma.

Everyone is welcome.

“It’s like a gold mine in there,” said Nancy Whelan, project manager of the virtual bank. “[It’s] just a rich resource for all interested parties, and not just for researchers. You open it up to everyone, and it just sparks new ideas.”

Virtual Tissue Bank Supports Research

The virtual tissue bank holds to the core belief that advances in both clinical and translational research depend on the ability of all researchers to access high-quality samples with meaningful and well-characterized, annotated data. And that’s what they provide in the virtual bank.

The Goal

The goal of the virtual tissue bank is to support research that will benefit all mesothelioma patients and treatment specialists by expediting the discovery of new preventative measures, by helping to uncover therapeutic interventions and by moving science closer to a cure. It does this by linking together data associated with specimens collected and stored at four different institutions.


Mesothelioma, a disease that primarily attacks the lining of the lungs and is caused by exposure to asbestos, has no known cure. Between 2,000 and 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the United States, representing about 0.2 percent of all cancer diagnoses. The average life expectancy of patients is four to 18 months.

Latency Period

Although the use of asbestos has been dramatically reduced in recent decades, the threat of mesothelioma remains real today because of the lengthy latency period (10 to 50 years), and because it still remains prevalent in anything built before 1980.

Center Consistency

There is a set of 132 common data elements to maintain consistency between samples and to help them be more understandable and shareable, regardless of where they are stored, or where they originally were obtained.

Medical centers at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Mount Sinai Hospital have joined with the University of Pittsburgh, moving forward with the project.

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How the Virtual Bank Started

The virtual bank began in 2006 with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with help from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In the fall of 2011, it received another five-year renewal, which has allowed it to plan for the long-term future.

Mike Becich, Ph. D, director of the Biomedical Informatics Department at the Pittsburgh School of Medicine, wants to double the size of the inventory in the virtual bank, adding more academic health centers to aid in the cause.

“Our goal is to provide the most comprehensive resource we can to go after this dreaded disease,” Becich told a gathering at the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) convention. “We’re proud to share the work. We want to be a national model and a tissue banking leader.”

There are other mesothelioma tissue banks – on both the East and West coasts – but none that promote this kind of open-to-all-researchers availability. Many are more protective of their samples.

How the Virtual Bank Works

Anyone can look at the inventory of the virtual bank to see what is available and determine if it has the specimens for a particular need. The vault is broken down by specimen availability, demographics, staging and vital status.

Among the more than 1,200 bio-specimens are paraffin embedded tissue, fresh frozen tissue and blood and DNA samples. There are tissue microarrays with associated multimodal data annotation.

“We provide enough information for investigators to peruse the field so their imaginations take over,” Whelan said. “Our hope is that students, scientists, Ph.D candidates can all look at the information, and say ‘I wonder . . ..” What we have could become a springboard. We’re looking for the next ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment.”

Search fields include histopathologic grade and type, stage of disease, availability of normal tissue, treatment received, metastatic disease and recurrence information.

Quick Fact

The resource can provide support of applications for more research funding. The mesothelioma tissue samples come with associated clinical and outcome data.

The hope is to appeal to researchers at every level, from the high powered to the graduate student doing his thesis paper, and from every discipline. The belief is that the next great breakthrough could from anywhere.

To receive the actual bio-specimen and the associated data sets, the research must be judged by a research evaluation panel, an independent review group. The bank is available for both academic researchers and to commercial organizations that need access to specimens for evaluations of prognostic or diagnostic studies. There are other tissue banks around the country, but little or no sharing goes on among them.

Pittsburgh’s Biomedical Informatics Department had considerable experience and expertise. Before the Pittsburgh’s virtual bank became reality, it already had been a valuable resource for research of prostate cancer, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.

“It’s very exciting trying to promote [and] providing tools for the investigation of a disease that badly needs it,” Whelan said. “We’re trying to be the bridge between those who are affected by it and those who can actually make the breakthroughs.”

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Michelle Whitmer

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

  1. Nancy Whelan, Project Manager, National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank. Telephone interview, Jan. 3, 2012.
  2. Michael Becich, M.D., speaking at the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation Symposium.
  3. National Mesothelioma Virtual Bank. Mesothelioma Tissue Resources Available for Your Bank. Retrieved from:

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