The UK Biobank plans to collect DNA samples from 5,00,000 Britons to unravel the genetic basis of several killer diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and joint problems. This project was approved on Tuesday.
Since a local three-month pilot phase, involving 3,800 participants around Manchester succeeded, it means that the UK Biobank project can conduct it at a national level from the end of 2006, according to a team of international scientific and medical experts.
"For decades to come, the UK Biobank resource should provide researchers around the world with vital insights into some of the most distressing diseases of middle and old age," principal investigator Professor Rory Collins said in a statement.
Scientists believe the project could improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases and could reveal why people react differently to medications. The Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Health, the Scottish Executive and the North West Regional Development Agency are funding the £61m project.
Blood and urine samples will be collected from volunteers aged 40 to 69, in the next 4 years. Men and women in this age group will be invited through letters to attend one of the network of assessment centres to be set up in locations around the UK. There will be approximately 35 centres in England, Scotland and Wales, each open for about 6months, in a 3 to 4 year enrollment period. These centers will be situated in localities with around 1,50,000 men and women aged 40-69 living within a 10-mile radius.
An enormous collection of medical data and materials will be gathered, stored and protected in this project. The idea is to have a rich reserve of data for the approved scientists to study examine how the complex interplay of genes, lifestyle and environment influences our susceptibility to the diseases.Around 10 million samples are estimated to be collected from the volunteers. The collected genetic data will be cross-referenced against information about volunteers' subsequent health, got with their permission.
Researchers allover the world will have an access to the resource through UK Biobank, but to protect participants' privacy, there will be stringent security system. Health Minister Andy Burnham said Britain was "leading the world" with the project, which would strengthen the country's academic and industrial research capability.
Exclusive access to the data will not be given to any one organization or commercial body. But pharmaceutical companies are likely to be able to use the results to design new drugs and diagnostic tests.
An independent International Review Panel set up by the funders has closely examined the final protocol. In its report, the panel concluded that "UK Biobank has the potential, in ways that are not currently available elsewhere, to support a wide range of research." Planning of the project and its way of dealing with possible ethical issues, have been applauded by the panel.
Some researchers are skeptical about the design, size and cost of the project. Some of them say that it will be difficult to accurately track lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise of 500,000 people. Ultimately, they feel the study will be superficial and could find wrong connections between genes and disease.
However, Professor Colins is confident about his project. He said: "For decades to come, the UK Biobank resource should provide researchers around the world with vital insights into some of the most distressing diseases of middle and old age."
Professor Colin Blakemore, MRC chief executive, said the project would provide scientists with "unprecedented opportunities to improve people's lives".
"UK Biobank offers enormous potential to find out more about the complex links between our genes, the lives we lead and our health.
"Over the coming years the data from this study will grow into a unique resource for future generations."
Dr Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, agreed with his view. He said: "This study has the opportunity to make a real difference to the health of future generations."
Health Minister Andy Burnham said, "The endorsement of Biobank showed the UK was at the forefront of applying new genetics-based knowledge for the benefit of patients." "Our academic and industrial research prowess, coupled with ethically robust research governance procedures, means we are already among the leading players in genetics research and development."
According to Dr Helen Wallace, of the group GeneWatch, there is a concern that this research funding could be put o better use. She said: "We would still like to see a much more open process of decision-making which actively involves members of the public."