Lymphoma tissue bank holds "the key" to understanding complex cancer

The key to understanding lymphoma, the most common adult blood cancer, lies in the tissue.

"It holds the answer to the whys, the hows, and what's next," said Sonali Smith, MD, director of the University of Chicago Medicine Lymphoma Program.

In 2013, UChicago Medicine opened the Hoogland Lymphoma Biobank, thanks to support from Family Video, to give researchers access to a library of biological samples from lymphoma patients. The goal: use the blood, tissue and urine to help researchers better study the complex family of cancers that turn the immune system's infection-fighting white blood cells against a patient. 


"Ultimately, the lymphoma biobank will help us make significant progress towards finding a cure," Hoogland said.


"From a biological standpoint, lymphoma is a unique disease in a sense because the cancerous tissue is so precious," Smith said. "With leukemia, the cancer is in the blood, so you can get samples. With colon cancer, the surgeon can collect multiple samples because surgery is part of the management. But with lymphoma, you have only one chance to get the initial material. If you don't store it properly for research, you rarely get another chance."

Many subtypes of lymphoma are either very aggressive, hard-to-treat, or incurable with current treatments. And it's alarmingly prevalent: every seven minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with a form of lymphoma, giving Smith's work an additional urgency.

"If we're able to bank these samples and study them properly perhaps we can get down to the best personalized approach for that person," she said.

Since the biobank was established, Smith has enrolled more than 650 patients, received nearly 350 blood samples and collected tissue samples from some 177 patients. In addition to helping lymphoma patients find the best possible treatment, Smith and her team hope the biobank will also be able to help explain why certain people develop lymphoma in the first place.

"Because we're also collecting epidemiological data -- including age, gender, race, and diet-in the biobank, we will be able to answer that," she said.

Sonali M. Smith, MD, director of the Lymphoma Program and associate professor of Medicine, talks with medical student Jennifer Jones, left, at the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine (DCAM), on the University of Chicago campus. (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

The biobank has also become a tool for lymphoma researchers across UChicago Medicine to better understand the disease more generally to better prevent, diagnose and treat lymphoma, with the goal of developing new clinical trials and ultimately new treatments and cures. The biobank was built thanks to support from Family Video, the country's largest video and game rental store. For 17 days every March, the chain holds the Round It Up for Lymphoma campaign, when customers in each of the company's roughly 780 North American stores are asked to round up their purchase to the nearest dollar and donate the change to support lymphoma research. Since launching the campaign in 2012, Family Video's efforts have raised about $4.7 million. The money supports UChicago Medicine, Smith and the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Keith Hoogland
Keith Hoogland, president of Family Video, and his wife, Susan

"Lymphoma is a disease that has touched the lives of many of our employees and their loved ones," says Keith Hoogland, president of Family Video. He's seen the incredible care that Smith provides her patients. He met her through his work with the Lymphoma Research Foundation, and they immediately hit it off.

"There are doctors and there are healers," Hoogland says. "And Sonali's a healer."

In addition to giving Smith the resources to launch the biobank, the donations have also enabled her to hire a clinical research associate who works to collect tissue samples from outside institutions. That's doubled the amount of collected tissue in the biobank.

And the number of samples will continue to grow. That's because Smith will soon start collect tissue samples through a partnership between UChicago Medicine and Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, IL, and other sites.

Smith and her team hope to continue to build more partnerships like the one with Silver Cross so they can collect as many samples as possible from a broad range of patients. The more samples they're able to get, the bigger the questions they can hope to answer.

"Ultimately, the lymphoma biobank will help us make significant progress towards finding a cure," Hoogland said.

Sonali Smith, MD, talks with Clayton Harris, a lymphoma patient

Lymphoma care

Tremendous strides have been made in the treatment of lymphoma — a group of blood cancers that begins in the white blood cells that fight infection in the body. UChicago Medicine lymphoma experts are among the first in the nation to offer innovative treatment options, including CAR T-cell therapy.

Learn more about our lymphoma services