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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 23:49 GMT 00:49 UK
Biobank set for national roll out
Gene analysis
The project will generate a huge amount of data
The largest study into the genetic and environmental causes of disease is to be rolled out across the UK.

The UK Biobank aims to obtain DNA samples from up to 500,000 people aged 40-69 and track their health.

It is hoped the database will be used to find cures for killer illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

The project received unanimous support from a team of international experts and its financial backers following a three-month pilot around Manchester.

This study has the opportunity to make a real difference to the health of future generations
Dr Mark Walport

Letters will be sent to men and women in the target group by the end of the year, inviting them to attend one of a network of assessment centres to be set up in locations around the UK.

Over a three to four-year recruitment period, there will be around 35 centres in England, Scotland and Wales, each open for about six months.

The centres will be located in areas where there are about 150,000 men and women aged 40-69 living within a 10-mile radius.

Complex interactions

The project will gather, store and protect a vast bank of medical data and material.

We would still like to see a much more open process of decision making which actively involves members of the public
Dr Helen Wallace

The aim is to give accredited researchers a rich resource which they can use to examine how the complex interplay of genes, lifestyle and environment affects our risk of disease.

The 61m project is being funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Health, the Scottish Executive and the North West Regional Development Agency.

A final protocol has been closely assessed by an independent International Review Panel set up by the funders.

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".

It also praised the planning of the project, and the way it had dealt with potential ethical problems.

Professor Rory Collins, UK Biobank's Principal Investigator, was delighted that the project had been given the thumbs up.

Important insights

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."

His view was echoed by Dr Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

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."

However, Biobank does not have universal support. Many leading medical researchers are concerned that it will be difficult to accurately track lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise of 500,000 people.

As a result, they say, the study will be superficial - and could find false links between genes and disease.

Dr Helen Wallace, of the group GeneWatch, said there was a concern that research funding might be better used elsewhere.

She said: "We would still like to see a much more open process of decision-making which actively involves members of the public."

Will Biobank pay off?
24 Sep 03 |  Health
Rules for UK Biobank revealed
24 Sep 03 |  Health

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