06 September 2004
ByAppeared in BioNews 274
Sir Alec Jeffreys, the geneticist who invented the DNA fingerprinting technique, has expressed concerns over the cost and effectiveness of the UK Biobank project. In an article published in the Daily Telegraph, he said he has 'a real concern' that nothing useful will come out of the research. He also warned that the start-up costs of £62 million are 'the thin end of the wedge', and that the overall bill could be closer to £10 billion. John Newton, the chief executive of Biobank, rejected the criticisms, saying: 'It is powerful scientifically and cost-effective'.
UK Biobank, hosted at the University of Manchester, will collect and store DNA samples and medical information from up to 500,000 volunteers aged between 45-69 years. The aim of the project, jointly funded by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust, is to study the role of gene and environment in health and disease. It hopes to identify factors involved in common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease and diabetes. But Jeffreys thinks that money could be better spent on smaller projects, looking at individual diseases.
According to Jeffreys, to get the 'full richness of genetic information' from all of the half a million participants means using millions of different genetic markers. 'Say it costs a penny a time, which is cheaper than anything at the moment, the overall bill comes out to £10 billion', he said. He also questioned whether the study would be effective in teasing out the subtle genetic factors influencing disease, and added that a similar ongoing project in Iceland 'made a lot more sense'. Iceland's Health Sector Database includes genetic information, detailed family history information and medical records from the majority of its 270,000 inhabitants.
In answer to Jeffreys' criticisms, Newton said that Biobank would complement smaller, family-based genetic studies, adding that there was 'no way of answering the questions that we will answer other than doing a large-scale prospective study'. The project has also been praised by UK human genome scientist Sir John Sulston, who said it builds on 'the public resources of the British National Health Service and the Human Genome Project for the good of all'. Newton is due to speak about the Biobank project later this week, at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.