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Welcome to the biobank

Posted on behalf of Helen Pearson.

Anyone interested in combing through data on over half a million ageing Brits will have their chance beginning today, when the UK Biobank throws open its databanks to researchers. The bank, unusual for its size and depth of data, should help scientists to identify the genetic and environmental causes of diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression and many other diseases.

In 2006, the UK Biobank started recruiting people aged 40–69. Researchers set up assessment centres in shopping malls, where volunteers gave blood and urine samples and spent 2–3 hours answering medical questions and undergoing measures of height, weight and body fat and tests of hearing, grip strength and lung function. The aim is collect a gigantic set of ‘baseline’ biomedical data, and then track the participants through follow-up questionnaires and through the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

By 2022, an estimated 10,000 of the cohort will have breast cancer, 9,000 will have Alzheimer’s disease and some 28,000 will have died from heart disease. Scientists can look back at data collected at the beginning and work out what distinguishes those who develop disease from those who stay healthy. But in the planning stages, some scientists were sceptical of what all this expensive data collection (costing nearly £100 million (US$160 million) so far from the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and other funders) would really achieve: a commentary in The Lancet once asked if it was “a project without a procedure”.

Six years on, the study has signed up over 500,000 participants. Around 10 million samples of blood, urine and saliva take up a –80ºC freezer the size of several double-decker buses on the outskirts of Stockport. The medical information eats up 20 terabytes. The one thing the biobank doesn’t have is any research projects — yet. Beginning today, researchers around the world can register on the biobank website and send in applications to use the data.

Rory Collins, the biobank’s principal investigator and chief executive officer, is confident that the resource will prove valuable. The power and uniqueness of the biobank, he said at a press conference to launch it, lies in the huge number of people recruited, the detail in the medical data collected and the fact that the data are being collected prospectively (in comparison, the famous Framingham Heart Study in the United States involves close to 5,000 participants, and the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study tracks around 520,000 but has less-detailed biomedical data, Collins says). The study leaders also emphasize that it is an open resource: anyone wanting to do health-related research can apply to use the anonymized data as long as they agree to publish their results and feed them back into the biobank. Collins has published a comment piece in The Lancet advertising the bank.

The biobank is likely to gain scientific value as it matures and amasses more data on the participants. (The team has plans to expand by, for example, asking participants to wear accelerometers that can accurately gauge physical activity levels and by compiling extensive sets of brain and body scans.) But Collins says that it can already be useful. Since recruitment began, 10,000 participants have developed diabetes, he says. This type of data on so many people is “beautiful — at least to an epidemiologist”, he says. Michael Rawlins, who chairs the UK Biobank board and is also chairman of the UK Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE), praised the “amazing altruism of ordinary people”, who have been willing to give “bits and pieces of themselves” to science. Now it’s up to scientists to use the bits.

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