Page last updated at 04:35 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 05:35 UK

UK Biobank 'close to signing up 500,000 participants'

By Keith Doyle
BBC News

Blood samples
Blood samples make up a major part of the biobank

Scientists behind one of the largest health projects in history say they are close to reaching their target of recruiting half a million participants.

UK Biobank hopes to find out how to prevent serious diseases, from cancer to arthritis, by establishing why some people develop them and others do not.

It will study the genes, lifestyles and health of volunteers over 30 years.

But critics fear the project will end up with healthy people being treated for illnesses they do not have.

The biobank is part of the largest and most detailed project ever to look into people's health, genes and lifestyles and how they interact to keep people healthy or make them ill.

It's going to lead to the marketing of fear
Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK

People aged 40 to 69 are being invited to take part.

Participants provide information on their current situation and have a number of measurements taken, such as blood pressure, weight, lung function and bone density, as well as giving blood, urine and saliva samples.

The results will be analysed and the volunteers monitored to try to improve the health of future generations.

'Marketing of fear'

Dr Tim Sprosen, chief scientist at UK Biobank: "We are going to really try and understand why it is that when some of us get to 40 and beyond we develop diseases like cancer, like heart disease, like joint disease, like dementia and really understand new risk factors so that we can prevent those diseases in the first place."

Samples are kept in a huge, purpose-built storage bank and will be checked against the volunteers' health conditions in the coming years and decades.

Researchers can apply to use the information as long as they put their findings back into the project.

But the biobank's critics say the information may not be safe and even anonymous information might be exploited by drugs companies.

Dr Helen Wallace, of GeneWatch UK, said: "It's a bad idea for health.

"Predicting people's diseases from the genetic make-up that they have is not going to be a useful strategy for health and it's going to lead to the marketing of fear."

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