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UK Biobank opens its doors

World's biggest medical experiment is go

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

The first phase of a huge project to collect and analyse a vast array of biomedical data has been launched today. The Manchester pilot of the world-first UK Biobank is the start of a ground-breaking study which eventually hopes to recruit half a million volunteers aged 40 to 69.

The study will examine in detail how genes, lifestyle and other environmental factors interplay to affect health long-term. As well as gene sequences, researchers will collate volunteers' questionnaires with measurements of on weight, height, body fat.

Understanding the relative risk factors for conditions with multiple causes like heart disease and Alzheimer's will be a key aim. Links to individual genes are often made without knowing the contibution they make to the overall disease phenotype.

It's unlikely that those participating will see any health perks. Principal investigator Professor Rory Collins said: "Taking part will be a bit like being a blood donor - you probably won't benefit, but others will."

The University of Oxford man explained: "All studies to date have had limitations, which means we don't have a clear picture of how these different elements interact."

UK Biobank is backed by £61m of funding from the NHS, the Wellcome Trust and other medical charities.

The deficit in clincal information when compared to the glut of genetic, expression and molecular data produced by academic research is driving the effort. The Human Genome Project has so far produced barely a sniff of its much-vaunted medical bonanza.

Some scientists have criticised the potentially cumbersome scale of the new research, however. A report by the Commons science and technology committee in 2003 dismissed Biobank for being 'speculative' and 'politically driven'.

Collins defended Biobank: "Every possible detail has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb - rigourous scientific assessment, review by an independent ethics and governance council, Data Protection Act compliance, [and] stringent security measures to prevent unauthorised access to participants' data."

The storage task facing the study has meant bespoke operations for handling the groaning weight of data and biological samples. Once up and running nationwide, a new robotic system will look after the 10m total samples that will be taken from 1,000 people per day at 10 assessment centres. ®

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