University of Iowa-based cell bank a go-to source for researchers

Iowa's 'best kept secret' has garnered international reputation

A sample is pulled from a liquid nitrogen deep freezer at the Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank at the Biology East b
A sample is pulled from a liquid nitrogen deep freezer at the Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank at the Biology East building at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Crammed into the third floor and basement of the University of Iowa’s Biology Building East are 3,000-some antibody-producing cells called hybridomas, tens of thousands of samples of the antibodies they produce and one-of-a-kind cancer research laboratories, as well as Iowa’s “best kept secret.”

Or maybe not.

The UI-based Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank (DSHB) — the largest not-for-profit bank of its kind in the world — has 100,000-plus customers, distributes about 68,000 samples annually, houses the only three-dimensional tumor reconstruction equipment, and has brought the university $17 million over the past eight years.

“This is the most famous resource the university has,” said UI biology professor David Soll, who now directs the bank.

But few people outside the world of research — including Iowans and members of the UI community — know it exists.

“It’s the best kept secret in Iowa,” Soll said. “But we are growing at an incredible rate.”

This week, the bank is receiving about 450 characterized hybridomas — increasing its salable collection by 25 to 30 percent — from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, which is off-loading due to research budget cuts.

And, Soll said, the bank expects to receive another shipment about that size in the coming weeks — increasing its collection to near 4,000.

The lab will expand its physical footprint on the UI campus in the next year to keep up with its growing collection, which is worth a quarter of a billion dollars, he added.

“We have special locks on the doors,” Soll explained Wednesday while walking through labs filled with incubators stacked with the cells, which have become imperative for all kinds of biomedical research.

“This is a gigantic collection,” he said. “And we are the only people who have figured out a way to distribute these things cheaply.”

The bank flourished

The Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank was created in 1986 at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland by the Institute of Child Health and Human Development to store and distribute research-enabling hybridomas, which are immortal in their ability to regenerate antibodies.

The bank had a subcontract at the UI, and after 10 years in operation the bank wasn’t doing well and was on its way out. Soll had a child health and human development project underway that was keeping the bank afloat, and the National Institutes of Health threatened to eliminate the resource unless Soll took it over.

He agreed, reluctantly, and the bank subsequently has flourished.

After moving to the UI campus in 1996, the facility became self-funded and has remained so — distributing antibodies at cost for $35 per 1 milliliter compared to between $200 and $800 when sold commercially.

“The trick is that we don’t own anything,” Soll said. “We have a license giving us the right to distribute at cost these antibodies. We can’t commercialize them, and our customers can’t.”

The facility’s goal is to make science, not money, Soll said. And he said the antibodies sold through the UI-based bank have done just that — enabling innumerable studies of cancer, infectious diseases and other maladies.

“If it wasn’t for this, a lot of antibodies wouldn’t be at people’s disposal,” Soll said.

The bank also can sell antibodies at cost because there are no investors seeking to make money.

But the facility does generate some revenue, about $2 million a year, all of which goes back into covering the cost to operate — there are 18 staffers who also teach and conduct research — and supporting the UI’s biology graduate program.

“We have given hundreds and hundreds of thousands to the graduate program — this year we gave $100,000,” Soll said, adding that it accounts for one-third of the UI Biology Department’s funding. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone — except the private companies.”

In fact, Soll said, the bank holds a certain amount of money aside for anticipated litigation.

“We have people accusing us of having an unfair advantage,” he said. “So we have to have a backup fund.”

In addition to housing and shipping out hybridomas and antibodies, Soll’s lab has developed seven hybridomas and created the Monoclonal Antibody Research Institute at Iowa, which aims to develop new hybridoma and antibody technologies.

‘international reputation’

The National Institutes of Health, along with the National Cancer Institute, have several large projects in the works involving the UI-based bank. And federal officials, on several occasions, have asked Soll to move the bank out of Iowa.

“But I started it here, and its beautiful here, and I would never get the facilities elsewhere if I moved,” said Soll, who has been at the UI for 43 years. “They have gotten in touch with me and I always shut it down. I’m going to live and die in Iowa.”

UI biology professor Diane Slusarski said she has used “lots” of the bank’s antibodies for her research in developmental biology — placing several orders a year.

“They are good quality,” Slusarski said, adding that the affordable price is crucial as federal research funding continues to slip.

“Anyone who uses antibodies in their research would look at the DSHB first,” she said. “If they carry (the antibody), they will get it there.”

But it’s more than just the cost that makes the UI-based bank a go-to source for researchers, said UI biology professor Steven Green.

“The quality control is much better,” Green said. “This gives us a tremendous international reputation,” Green said.