The decision to use 10% neutral buffered formalin fixed, paraffin embedded (FFPE) archival pathology material may be dictated by the cancer research question or analytical technique, or may be governed by national ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI), biobank, and sample availability and access policy. Biobanked samples of common tumors are likely to be available, but not all samples will be annotated with treatment and outcomes data and this may limit their application. Tumors that are rare or very small exist mostly in FFPE pathology archives. Pathology departments worldwide contain millions of FFPE archival samples, but there are challenges to availability. Pathology departments lack resources for retrieving materials for research or for having pathologists select precise areas in paraffin blocks, a critical quality control step. When samples must be sourced from several pathology departments, different fixation and tissue processing approaches create variability in quality. Researchers must decide what sample quality and quality tolerance fit their specific purpose and whether sample enrichment is required. Recent publications report variable success with techniques modified to examine all common species of molecular targets in FFPE samples. Rigorous quality management may be particularly important in sample preparation for next generation sequencing and for optimizing the quality of extracted proteins for proteomics studies. Unpredictable failures, including unpublished ones, likely are related to pre-analytical factors, unstable molecular targets, biological and clinical sampling factors associated with specific tissue types or suboptimal quality management of pathology archives. Reproducible results depend on adherence to pre-analytical phase standards for molecular in vitro diagnostic analyses for DNA, RNA and in particular, extracted proteins. With continuing adaptations of techniques for application to FFPE, the potential to acquire much larger numbers of FFPE samples and the greater convenience of using FFPE in assays for precision medicine, the choice of material in the future will become increasingly biased toward FFPE samples from pathology archives. Recognition that FFPE samples may harbor greater variation in quality than frozen samples for several reasons, including variations in fixation and tissue processing, requires that FFPE results be validated provided a cohort of frozen tissue samples is available.

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Biotechnic and Histochemistry
Department of Pathology

Gaffney, E., Riegman, P., Grizzle, W., & Watson, P. (2018). Factors that drive the increasing use of FFPE tissue in basic and translational cancer research. Biotechnic and Histochemistry (Vol. 93, pp. 373–386). doi:10.1080/10520295.2018.1446101