Britain's Biobank Is Open for Business

Treasure trove. A million blood and urine samples are stored in the UK Biobank.

Wellcome Images

LONDON—The UK Biobank, a repository containing samples and health data from half a million people, is finally open for business after being in the works for more than a decade. The £62 million project, funded mainly by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, has tested one in every 50 people between the ages of 40 and 69 years, from across the country, between 2006 and 2010.

"What we hope now is that scientists will use it," says Rory Collins, principal investigator and chief executive officer of the Biobank, and an epidemiology professor at Oxford University. The idea is that the bank will inform research into major diseases such as dementia, diabetes, and cancer by allowing scientists to draw correlations with myriad factors, including smoking and body fat.

Its value is that "it's big and it's detailed," Collins says. Blood and urine samples, along with results of physical tests for hearing, weight, height, bone density, and lung function, as well as personal interviews, paint a thorough picture of each participant. By the end of this year, 10,000 of the volunteers are expected to have developed diabetes and 2500, breast cancer. On this scale, results are far more "crisp" than those from most epidemiological studies, he explains.

"It's nice that they look at your whole body," says Dubravka Huzjak, a 51-year-old woman in London, who agreed to take part because she suffers from osteoarthritis. With £25 million of funding for the next 5 years, Collins plans to add further detail to these personal portraits, for instance by sending wrist-worn accelerometers, used to monitor activity, to those in the study who agree to wear one. Home monitors may be installed to measure exposure to harmful gases such as radon.

It's early days for the Biobank, but a meeting in January attracted interest from more than 40 groups, including health charities and pharmaceutical companies, says Wendy Ewart of the Medical Research Council. Eye-imaging tests that were carried out on a large subset of participants, Collins says, have researchers at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London "gagging to get at that data."

Plans for the Biobank were controversial when they were first developed. In 2003, the Medical Research Council faced attacks for not adequately consulting the U.K.'s research community. Those concerns, along with criticisms about delays and cost, have quieted. However, some pressure groups, including GeneWatch UK, maintain that genetic databases are white elephants with few scientific benefits.

The Biobank is free to use for anyone doing health-related research in the public interest anywhere in the world, subject to the cost of processing the requests. One caveat is that results must be published and fed back into the Biobank's databases. "The more it's used, the more valuable it becomes to other researchers," Collins says.

Meanwhile, the collection of samples and data will continue. Participants will be followed until they die, their details updated from National Health Service records, and some tests repeated. Each year brings more detail about each person and more cases of disease. "The beauty of this kind of study is you can just wait," Collins says.