Bio-banks sustainability

Biological samples and environmental sustainability:
a communication leverage

Marino Bonaiuto, Uberta Ganucci Cancellieri, and Silvia Ariccio

IFEIT Ethical Committee promotes scientific researches on the ethical questions concerning various aspects of biomedical practices. Among these ethical issues, the environmental question is rarely associated to the biomedical and hemapheresis context. Although maybe it is not the most urgent one, we think it has an undeniable strategic relevance, especially if we look ahead and we imagine, on the basis of data forecasts, a future mass-boom of such a scientific and technological sector. We therefore think that this issue should be seriously taken into account as soon as possible, in order to be put on the agenda of the relevant scientific, technological, political, social-cultural stakeholders.
Up to now the stem cell market has been a niche market, whose main ethical issues concerned bioethics and the acceptability of stem cells extraction, storage and usage. The importance and resonance of the bioethical debate has been so strong that few other ethical matters have been debated, including the environmental issue. Yet, biological sample market forecasts suggest that this market will increase in the next years, transforming it from a niche to a mass phenomena. Thus, as the bioethical debate will evolve, transform and probably diminish under some respects - and these techniques will be more accepted and diffused - their environmental impact will grow and the sustainability issue will become worthy of attention and thus needed to be taken into account.
Companies are important energy consumers and both legal requirements and corporate social responsibility (CSR) criteria, as well as moral norms, suggest they should reduce their consumptions and their ecological footprint. More specifically, in the biological sample storage sector, the consumption issue concerns either the electricity required for getting mechanical freezers to ultra-low temperatures, or the electricity required for producing the liquid nitrogen used in cryogenic freezers.
In fact, since a few years a debate exists about the efficacy of these two techniques: are the mechanical freezers able to freeze the biological samples at the same ultra-low temperatures as nitrogen freezers? If this question has been addressed and many producers provide various answers to it, the efficiency question is still largely missing. Providing the two methods are equally effective, which of them is the most efficient and would thus be the most cost and environment effective? The two techniques are different for investment costs, fueling cost and source of pollution, thus a direct comparison across the two techniques is hard to do, but maybe it is not impossible at all and certainly it is not impossible within each kind of technique. Presently, however, this issue still needs to be properly considered and systematically deepened.
Reducing energy consumption, in a growing market, is important both for reducing economic costs and to improve CSR. These actions could thus help in differentiating the offer when facing a wider and varied market. CSR is important for biobanking especially because today environmental sustainability is a subject of political, ethical and economical debate: in a growing market, taking environmental issues into account could be very important in order to acquire a competitive advantage.
Currently, however, companies' communication about efficiency improvements in biological samples processing practically exists only at a business-to-business level: i.e., storing systems and freezers producers do advertise to biobanks some of their products as “efficient”, “cost saving” or even “ecological”. At the same time, this kind of communication apparently does not spread into the business-to-client level: i.e., bio-banks do not communicate their sustainable solutions to their costumers, thus they do not fully capitalize on one of their communication and marketing leverages.
Overall, considering that cryoconservation's environmental footprint will increase in the next few years and decades, because of its spread at a mass-level, IFEIT supports the study of the social impact of the development and communication of ecological-friendly solutions for biological samples storage. Reducing this footprint is important for economical and CSR reasons, and it could become a communication leverage providing a competitive advantage. Concerning its communication, attention should be particularly given to the business-to-client side, which is currently totally under-considered.