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FAIRer and faster: How two IMI projects are working together to help make stem cell research more efficient

IMI projects EBiSC2 and FAIRplus are ensuring that EBiSC's data is FAIR, i.e. findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable; this should ultimately help to accelerate research.

07 December 2022
A man using a tablet. Image by Niek Verlaan via Pixabay.
FAIRplus helped EBiSC ensure the stem cell data in its catalogue is FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable). Image by Niek Verlaan via Pixabay.

Stem cells hold a tremendous promise for the future of healthcare. These cells are capable of assuming any cell identity and can therefore be directed to mimic human tissues and organs. They are increasingly important for medical research, providing invaluable insights for developing new treatments and determining how diseases are likely to progress. Two Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) projects – EBiSC2 and FAIRplus – are now working together to ensure the research community knows such information exists and can access established data and tools.

Stem cell research is a cornerstone of medicine development and disease investigation. It provides insight into what happens in the human body in ways that other approaches cannot. Of particular value are ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPSCs), which can transform into any type of cell – for example into bone, brain, liver or skin cells. However, the process of creating iPSCs from scratch is challenging and time consuming, since it includes many quality-control steps and analyses. Therefore, it is important to maximise the value of stem cell research data and enable their sharing and re-use by other scientists.

To address the increasing demand for iPSCs and related data, the European Bank for induced pluripotent Stem Cells (EBiSC) was established as a centralised, not-for-profit iPSC bank through an IMI project which started 2014. A second IMI project, EBiSC2, started in 2019 and builds on the results of EBiSC. EBiSC2 aims to install a self-sustainable iPSC bank providing researchers across academia and industry with long-term access to scalable, cost-efficient, consistent, and high-quality iPSC lines and derived products as well as services for new medicines development.

The EBiSC collection covers a range of diseases and genetic backgrounds. Researchers can add their cell lines, along with associated data, into a central repository, both of which are shared via a public catalogue. Other researchers can then search these datasets to identify and access the appropriate cell line for their needs.

However, iPSC scientists work in a variety of organisations using differing data recording practices and hence data records can be fragmented and inconsistent. This also means that data are collected in a range of formats, meaning it may be incompatible with the customer’s needs or difficult to adapt and standardise. This is something that EBiSC wanted to avoid from the outset. Therefore, it has been partnering with the human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry (hPSCreg) since 2014 to ensure that iPSC datasets are easy for researchers to identify, access and reuse.

More recently, the EBiSC team embarked on a collaboration with another IMI project, FAIRplus. The objective of FAIRplus is to develop tools and guidelines that make both scientific and patient data FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable). Together, the two projects assessed EBiSC’s established workflows for managing identifiers, recording cell line metadata, managing data access and improving the way data from different providers can be linked together, with a focus on ‘FAIR’ principles.

Together with FAIRplus, EBiSC2 reviewed and extended its existing data collection and standardisation workflows to improve the FAIRness of stem cell data in the EBiSC catalogue and make it easier for researchers to find what they need in existing databases. This should help accelerate research, thus improving the understanding of disease pathologies and ultimately bringing new and improved therapies for patients to the clinic faster.

Simultaneously, EBiSC2 reviewed so-called FAIRification recipes (sets of instructions to tackle a specific FAIR-related problem) developed in FAIRplus, to make these easy to use by other initiatives and projects. This is a great example of different IMI-backed projects working together to help make research data more findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable, in a generalised and adoptable manner.

EBiSC, EBiSC2 and FAIRplus are supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.