07 June 2004
ByAppeared in BioNews 261
Scientists in the US are hoping to secure funding for a 'biobank' project, similar to those being carried out in Iceland, Estonia and the UK. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to collect genetic and medical information on half a million volunteers, to study the effects of genes and environmental factors on common diseases. NIH genome institute director Francis Collins says that US researchers need data that will be relevant to the diverse American population. 'If we don't do this, in five or six years we're going to be kicking ourselves', he told the journal Science. A commentary written by Collins, outlining the case for such a prospective study, appeared in Nature recently.
The NIH is currently accepting comments on the proposed project, and hopes that a working group will produce an outline by this autumn. If it goes ahead, the US biobank would be the largest population-based study ever carried out in the country. According to US epidemiology expert Terri Manolio, the project would try to include up to 500,000 people from all the geographic, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups defined in the latest US census.
However, as well as the funding, there are other issues to resolve before starting such a project, says Alan Guttmacher, of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). As well as deciding how the DNA samples should be analysed, researchers need to identify which environmental factors the study should focus on, he told the Scientist magazine. 'We don't have the expertise or the imagination to come up with all the hypotheses we want to answer with this data', he said. The project would cost a lot and take a long time, he added, 'but if you can't do it well it's not worth doing'.
Biobank UK, hosted at the University of Manchester, aims to collect and store DNA samples and medical information from up to 500,000 volunteers aged between 45-69 years. Scientists hope that the £45 million undertaking, jointly funded by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust, will identify factors involved in common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease and diabetes. Biobank UK will begin enrolling participants next year.