Brussels, 15 Mar 2006
The UK Biobank initiative is set to launch in Manchester, with the aim of finding the root causes of many common diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. The project's first target is to recruit 3,000 participants in the 40 to 65 age group from the south of the city. The Biobank expects to eventually recruit half a million volunteers when the project launches in the rest of the UK later in the year.
The scheme aims to find the root causes for particular diseases by tracing information from each participant's genes, lifestyle and environment. This information will be measured against the diseases that participants will eventually contract, leading to, researchers hope, a better understanding of those diseases.
'Nothing like this has been attempted before in such fine detail on such a vast scale,' explains Professor Rory Collins, UK Biobank's Principal Investigator, and Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. 'It's been known for a long time that the risk of getting a particular disease often involves a combination of environment, lifestyle, genes - and chance - but all studies to date have had limitations, which mean we still don't have a clear picture of how these different elements interact. By being so large and detailed, UK Biobank will be able to study many different risk factors together, each of which may have only modest effects on the likelihood of getting some particular disease.'
Participants are given a standard medical, including blood and urine samples, and then presented with a lifestyle questionnaire. Participants could expect to be followed and monitored for 50 years.
'UK Biobank is a long-term project,' said Professor Collins, 'so taking part will be a bit like being a blood donor - you probably won't benefit, but others will. In this case it will be your children and grandchildren's generation.'
The scale of the project has required the development of new systems to deal with the quantity of biological material that must be processed. Once the blood is separated and stored, there will be some ten million samples stored at between minus 80 degrees and minus 200 degrees centigrade, with up to 1,000 new samples arriving every day.
The scheme operates in cooperation with the UK's National Health Service, and more than 20 UK universities have contributed to the programme design, with eight to ten assessment centres opening around the UK when it launches UK-wide.