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UK Biobank

UK Biobank is an ambitious project to gather biological samples and medical and lifestyle data from 500 000 people aged 40 to 69 by 2010. Launched in Manchester in 2006, the long-term project should provide a useful resource for biomedical research in the future. It is hoped that UK Biobank will shed light on a number of serious conditions of middle and old age, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Samples being stored at the UK Biobank, a vast bank of medical data and material from volunteers which was launched in 2006. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

UK Biobank is a major long-term initiative to produce a national database that will improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of many serious illnesses. The £61 million project - funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health, the Scottish Executive and the Northwest Regional Development Agency - is among the largest of a handful of national biobank projects underway across the globe.

After a successful pilot in March 2006, UK Biobank began recruiting in Manchester in March 2007. Since the launch, the Manchester recruitment centre has been joined by others in Oxford, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds and Reading. In early 2008, the project celebrated the registration of its 100 000 participant. By the end of 2010, UK Biobank should hold samples and information from 500 000 UK residents aged between 40 and 69.

With consent from participants researchers will collect different types of data, including standard body measurements (such as blood pressure and lung function), blood and urine samples, and information on a person's lifestyle and medical history. The researchers will then obtain more details on participants' health by searching medical records. Security and privacy is of key importance for the project, and an independent Ethics and Governance Council has been established to help monitor and advise on the way in which UK Biobank is conducted.

Participants will be given detailed information about UK Biobank's aims and what is required to be involved. They will be asked to give broad consent for their records and samples to be used for any medical or other health-related research. The data collected from participants will be stored securely on computer. Researchers from anywhere in the world, and from academia or industry, are welcome to apply to use data and samples collected for the project. Any data or samples used in this way will not have any personal identifiers attached, so any findings cannot be traced back to individuals.

Making a difference

UK Biobank is a long-term project that is an investment for the future. To begin to understand the various factors involved in the development of a given disease, researchers need to wait until 'enough' cases to allow statistical analysis of the disease arise in the population being studied. This means that, particularly in terms of the factors implicated in rare diseases, UK Biobank will not start to bear fruit until it has been underway for at least 10 years.

It is hoped that UK Biobank will become increasingly useful in time as newer and more advanced research technologies will come into use. Researchers from across the world who have been approved by UK Biobank will also be able to use the data and samples from the project. The sheer size of the sample population means that the project should ultimately shed light on many debilitating and life-threatening diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia - conditions that members of the sample population are at risk of developing over the coming decades.

UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council

The UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council (EGC) is an independent committee established by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. Its purposes are:

  • to act as an independent guardian of the UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Framework (EGF) and advise on its revision
  • to monitor and report publicly on the conformity of the UK Biobank project with the EGF
  • to advise more generally on the interests of research participants and the general public in relation to UK Biobank.

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