The UK Biobank launches researcher access
Posted on 07/04/2012
The UK biobank has been some time in the making, but after years of preparation, recruitment and screening of participants, this week it opened its doors for researchers to access data and biological materials. The UK Biobank is probably the best example of how a concerted effort and the associated funding can lead to a huge and potentially very important epidemiological resource. It has set a trend across Europe for the set up of a string of national cohorts / biobanks, which will offer epidemiologists an unprecedented scale of access to well documented person-time.
During the past 6 years, the UK Biobank has recruited half a million people between the ages of 40 and 70. Participants were assessed for a basic set of characteristics, such as height, weight, body fat and tests of hearing, grip strength and lung function. The last 100,000 participants underwent a more detailed assessment, including measurement of physical fitness. Of course, the baseline assessment also included a substantive questionnaire, with details of past and current exposure to the most common risk factors for chronic disease.
The most important feature of the UK Biobank, beside its gigantic size, is the availability of biological samples: Serum, DNA and urine. These samples are frozen and stored for later use.
The beauty of this initiative, as with any other prospective study, is that the value of the data will increase as time goes by and the 500,000 people in the sample contribute more and more person-time to the study’s follow up. It is expected that by 2022, 10,000 of the participants will have developed breast cancer, 9,000 will have Alzheimer’s disease and up to 28,000 will have died from heart disease.
When a large enough number of cases has arisen, researchers will be able to extract these participant’s old samples from the Biobank freezers and measure all sorts of markers of disease as they were years before the disease occurred. That is the real power and beauty of longitudinal epidemiology.