United Kingdom

Scans, such as these of body fat, will be part of a massive new imaging study in the United Kingdom.

Jimmy Bell, University of Westminster and Advanced MR Analytics AB

U.K. begins world's largest biomedical imaging study

The largest ever health imaging study will soon offer researchers a look inside the bodies of Brits. The UK Biobank, a nonprofit biological data repository in Stockport, announced today it plans to scan the organs of 100,000 people over the next 6 to 8 years. The snapshots, taken with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other standard techniques, will be linked to diverse data on health and lifestyle, allowing researchers to improve understanding and diagnoses of diseases such as cancer, dementia, arthritis and osteoporosis, and coronary heart disease.

Biobank was set up in 2006 by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust. The goal was to create a resource for health researchers by gathering health-relevant data—such as diet, physical activity, lifestyle, and cognitive function—as well as samples of blood and DNA from a half million people in the United Kingdom. To allow analysis of health outcomes, these data are linked to the individuals' health records from hospitals, death registers, and, now, general physicians.

So far, Biobank has DNA from 150,000 people and anticipates it will have DNA from the other 350,000 by the end of the year. They have physical activity from 100,000, taken from a watchlike monitor for up to 7 days. Blood samples have been analyzed for hormones, glucose, lipid markers, and other aspects.

A pilot project to add biomedical images was recently completed with scans of 8000 people. Scaling up to 100,000 will cost £43 million, which will be paid for by MRC and Wellcome Trust.

Imaging will include:

  • Heart—Chamber diameter; volume of blood flow; thickness of the heart wall; thoracic aorta size, shape, and stiffness
  • Brain—Structure and function; volumes of gray matter; mapping of major brain connections
  • Fat—Distribution through the body; measures of abdominal fat volume including in the liver and pancreas
  • Bones—X-ray measures of bone density; arthritis in spine, hip, and knee; spinal fractures
  • Arteries—Ultrasound assessment of the carotid arteries, which run either side of the neck to the brain

There are many potential payoffs. Because the scans will be taken from participants who are healthy or sick, researchers might be able to identify changes before symptoms arise; this could one day improve diagnoses. They hope to identify new risk factors and perhaps improve scanning methods themselves.

Data will be accessible to health scientists who register with Biobank. Existing data are currently being studied by about 2700 researchers from the United Kingdom and other countries, in both academia and industry.

"This unprecedented data set of advanced medical images will synergize with biologic information from other studies," says Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in Bethesda, Maryland. "It will reveal biomarkers that we can’t get any other way and will provide a deeper understanding of how to prevent, detect and treat disease."