Rethinking Healthcare

UK Biobank: world's biggest biomedical database opens today

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DNA, blood, saliva, urine, lifestyle details... just some of the things donated to medical research by 500,000 middle-aged Brits. The enormous resource promises to tease apart nature from nurture.

Information on 500,000 Brits is now available for medical research.

At 20 terabytes – the equivalent of 30,000 CDs stacked over 100 feet high – the UK Biobank is the world’s biggest and most detailed biomedical database.

The resource is expected to advance research into the causes, prevention and treatment of a huge variety of chronic, painful and life-threatening illnesses: from cancer and heart disease to dementia and depression.

"For years, people have asked about nature versus nurture but now, with the data we have, we can tease out the contributions of what you're born with versus the environment you grow up in," says Wendy Ewart of the UK Medical Research Council, one of several backers of the project.

The volunteers were between 40 and 69 years old (thus chosen because they won’t keep researchers waiting too long before developing interesting conditions).

Among them: 26,000 people with diabetes, 50,000 with joint disorders, 41,000 teetotallers, and 11,000 heart attack patients.

By the end of this year, 10,000 are expected to have developed diabetes and 2,500 will develop breast cancer. By 2022, an estimated 10,000 will have breast cancer, 9,000 will have Alzheimer’s, and 28,000 will have died from heart disease.

More than 1,000 pieces of information about each participant are be available:

  • Results of genetic tests, and tests on donated blood, urine and saliva samples.
  • In addition to medical history, lifestyle details and standard measurements, there are also less obvious assessments like hand grip strength, bone density, and psychosocial events.
  • Changes in health are recorded via electronic records (hospital statistics, cancer and death registers).
  • Some participants will be completely retested every couple years, and additional details will be added (such as diet, work and residential questionnaires, body scanning, and physical activity tracked with accelerometers).
  • Results from studies using UK Biobank are put back into the resource for other researchers to use.
  • And it will keep growing. Plans are afoot to include fMRI scans, ultrasound scans, and X-rays of bones and joints.

"It's the biggest, most detailed collection of data that's ever been put in place," says founder Rory Collins. Its impact on dissecting the causes of disease, he says, will be as profound as the invention of the telescope was to astronomy, or the microscope to microbiology.

It cost nearly £100 million (about $160 million). And about 15 million biological samples are stored in a giant freezer facility in northern England.

The US National Institutes of Health had plans to set up a similar resource, but the $2 billion pricetag was too high. China has a similar database, China Kadoorie Biobank, also with 500,000 volunteers.

The Biobank doesn’t have any research projects… it’s up to researchers to register on the website and send in applications to use the data.

[Via Biobank news release, New Scientist, Reuters, Nature, ScienceInsider]

Image: Biobank and Wellcome Trust

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure