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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Will Biobank pay off?
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent

DNA
Huge quantities of DNA information would be gathered
Biobank is the most ambitious project of its kind ever undertaken.

It aims to collect the DNA of half a million people and track their health and lifestyle for at least ten years.

It's hoped that the information collected will be the research equivalent of gold dust - containing the secrets of how genes and environmental factors conspire to make us ill.

It is anticipated that big "pay off" will be a new generation of treatments that show in advance those most vulnerable and the steps they should take to avoid getting ill in the first place.

I think it's a fantastic idea but people are sceptical that science by committee that is trying to appease so many different groups simultaneously rather than have a more focused approach
Professor Robert Plomin, Institute of Psychiatry
The project has already attracted tens of millions of pounds in funding from the Medical Research Council - but critics say it would cost much more to complete the project, and this would be money better spent elsewhere.

Professor Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry in London is among many who has grave doubts: "I wish it the best of luck but I worry that its going to be difficult to make it work in ithe end.

"I think it's a fantastic idea but people are sceptical that science by committee that is trying to appease so many different groups simultaneously rather than have a more focused approach."

'Too expensive'

Martin Jarvis, of University College London, believes that Biobank is an expensive way of getting quite superficial information.

It's been suggested that the study might cost a 1,000 pounds per participant - and that comes to 500 million altogether and of course that kind of level of resource is going to eat away at the possibilities of other scientific studies
Professor Martin Jarvis, University College London
It's all very well tracking the health records of half a million people - but that information is relatively meaningless unless you are able to find out in some detail - through regular quesionaires - what they did to become ill in the first place.

And that, according to Professor Jarvis, would be prohibitively expensive.

"It's been suggested that the study might cost a 1,000 pounds per participant - and that comes to 500 million altogether and of course that kind of level of resource is going to eat away at the possibilities of other scientific studies."

"It has been suggested that a more cost effective approach would be to take a smaller group - say 40,000 - and put a lot more effort into measuring the lifestyle and behvioural and psychological characteristics of those people and that that would then give a better chance of providing scientific fundings"

While many scientists support Biobank there's also concern that it's an expensive prestige project that may not be able to deliver.

Research fears

Many in the research community rely on the same bodies that will fund Biobank to pay for their research - and are understandably reluctant to go public with criticisms.

However, one leading scientist told the BBC: "My problems with Biobank have always been its lack of clear scientific purpose rather than anything else.

"The 'dossier' that the initial working party produced and which went to MRC Council and Wellcome Trust governors was misleading in many respects and contained some serious errors.

"Subsequent dossiers retreated from the more extravagant claims, but in my view failed to make much in the way a convincing case for what remained".

Another said: "This will no doubt put an extra burden on an already overstretched NHS.

"If GP's are to collect data and material, how will they cope? Or will extra clinical personnel be employed and where will these come from given current shortages?

"It is also a financial burden for the MRC and Wellcome at a time when both organisations are having problems.

"No-one can believe that it will stay within the currently predicted budget.

But once it begins it can not be reduced without losing scientific value and to abandon it would be a complete waste of everything invested up until that point".

Parliament doubts

An initial 61 million has been pledged to start biobank - and as a result according to a report by the Commons Science Select Committee, other High quality science projects are being squeezed.

Funding for Biobank - which is only about 1% of the national spend on biomedical research - is not the reason why other people are not getting their grants
Professor John Newton, Biobank
Its chairman Dr Ian Gibson said: "Our select committee report was quite rough and savage and criticised the MRC quite heavily for going down this line and that many many people were having their grants put under amazing pressure.

There's concern that volunteers will be asked to donate their DNA without really knowing how it's to be used or who's going to use it .

That, according to Dr Helen Wallace of the pressure group Genewatch runs counter to all the current rules of medical ethics.

"Biobank would tear up those rules and say: 'Give your sample to us and we'll decide how it's going to be used.'"

Dr Wallace is also concerned that private companies will be allowed acess to Biobank.

"Will companies for example be able to patent gene sequences and gain a monopoly over future treatments?"

Professor John Newton, who is leading the team spearheading the project, says that participants in the project can be assured that their DNA information would not be used in future in a way they would not sanction.

And he said there was no question of other research suffering as a result of the project.

He said: "Funding for Biobank - which is only about 1% of the national spend on biomedical research - is not the reason why other people are not getting their grants."

The new ethical framework on Biobank is clearly an attempt to address many of the concerns about the project - but many still question why so much public money was pledged to the project so soon - when there were so many doubts.




SEE ALSO:
Rules for UK Biobank revealed
24 Sep 03  |  Health



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