500,000 Brits allow health research on a new scale

UK Biobank opens today for research into the causes of disease, having amassed one of the most detailed large-scale health resources ever.

The giant resource provides a snapshot of the health and lifestyles of the nation, with more than 1,000 separate pieces of information already available for half a million Britons.

This information will grow further as the volunteers' health is followed over many years and stored samples are analysed.

'This is without doubt a very exciting day for medical research, not just in the UK but around the world,' said Professor Sir Rory Collins of Oxford University, UK Biobank’s principal investigator.

'We are grateful to participants for their trust and support so far. But they have not joined the project to see it remain idle; we all want to see the resource used extensively to bring about benefits to health and wellbeing.'

UK Biobank is expected to advance research into the causes, prevention and treatment of a large number of chronic, painful and life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, arthritis, and eye, bone and muscle disorders.

The scale of the project means that among the 500,000 volunteers there were 26,000 people with diabetes, 50,000 with joint disorders, 41,000 teetotallers and 11,000 heart attack patients.

This should allow new findings on why some people develop particular diseases in mid-to-later life and others do not, paving the way for new treatment and preventive strategies.

UK Biobank is expected to gain in value for health research, as results of tests on donated samples of blood, urine and saliva are added. Changes in participants’ health over time will also be recorded using data from electronic records from general practices, hospital statistics, and cancer and death registers.

Participants in their forties, fifties and sixties were recruited from Scotland, England and Wales over four years from 2006–2010.  

Measures of were taken of volunteers' height, weight, body fat, hand grip strength, bone density, lung function and blood pressure, along with information about medical histories and lifestyles.

Memory, diet, early life factors and psychosocial events (such as how often people see family and friends) were also recorded. The last 100,000 participants also had hearing, fitness and eye tests. This alone has created the biggest eye study ever.

The resource so far stretches to about 20 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 30,000 CDs stacked to a height of about 35 metres. And its size will grow tremendously over the coming years.

For example, if a plan to do imaging scans of a fifth of all the participants gets the go-ahead – that’s 100,000 people – it would add 10 times more information.

Later in the year, UK Biobank will ask some participants to wear an activity monitor for one week, and it has had almost 400,000 responses to an online follow-up diet questionnaire.

An online Data Showcase will allow scientists and the public to see a summary of the information collected so far.

Scientists from the UK and overseas will be able to use the resource irrespective of whether they are from academia, industry, charity or are government-funded, subject to checks that the research is health-related and in the public interest.

Only information that does not identify participants will be provided to researchers. Careful checks on applications to use the resource will be carried out by the UK Biobank team, and an independent UK Biobank Ethics & Governance Council also has oversight of the system.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Health, said: 'UK Biobank is a globally unique resource which places the UK at the forefront of the quest to understand why some people develop life threatening diseases or debilitating conditions. It has huge potential for future generations and will help us understand how our children and our children's children can live longer, healthier lives.'

UK Biobank is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, Department of Health, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and the British Heart Foundation.