Anyone interested in combing through data on over half a million ageing Brits will have their chance beginning today, when the UK Biobank throws open its databanks to researchers. The bank, unusual for its size and depth of data, should help scientists to identify the genetic and environmental causes of diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression and many other diseases.
In 2006, the UK Biobank started recruiting people aged 40–69. Researchers set up assessment centres in shopping malls, where volunteers gave blood and urine samples and spent 2–3 hours answering medical questions and undergoing measures of height, weight and body fat and tests of hearing, grip strength and lung function. The aim is collect a gigantic set of ‘baseline’ biomedical data, and then track the participants through follow-up questionnaires and through the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.
By 2022, an estimated 10,000 of the cohort will have breast cancer, 9,000 will have Alzheimer’s disease and some 28,000 will have died from heart disease. Scientists can look back at data collected at the beginning and work out what distinguishes those who develop disease from those who stay healthy. But in the planning stages, some scientists were sceptical of what all this expensive data collection (costing nearly £100 million (US$160 million) so far from the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and other funders) would really achieve: a commentary in The Lancet once asked if it was “a project without a procedure”.