02 April 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 651
The world's largest database of medical information has opened online, allowing researchers around the world to access its contents. The UK Biobank holds anonymous information from more than 500,000 British people, making it a 'globally unique resource' according to England's chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies.
The information collected from participants, all between 49 and 60 years old, includes height, weight, blood pressure and lung function. Medical histories are also included with notes on psychosocial factors, such as how often participants see family and friends.
The data further includes 100,000 eye tests, making it the largest ever eye study. Collected between 2006 and 2010 after eight years of preparation, the UK Biobank holds biological samples from participants and will be continuously updated with information from participants' NHS records. Participants gave their time and body fluids voluntarily, without being paid.
The information will be available on demand to scientists working on health-related research, regardless of their sector or source of funding. It is hoped that by mining such a rich resource, researchers will be able to pinpoint why some people develop diseases like cancer and heart disease in mid to later life while others do not.
Professor Sir Rory Collins, UK Biobank's principal investigator, said that it was a 'very exciting day for medical research'. Other countries including China and Sweden have similar databases, but the UK Biobank is the most comprehensive.
Applications to use the anonymous information will be made online and checked by the independent UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council who have oversight of the entire system. All researchers using the database are required to add their own findings to it, further bolstering the information available.
Dame Davies said that the resource has 'huge potential for future generations and will help us understand how our children and our children's children can live longer, healthier lives'.
The UK Biobank is funded by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, Department of Health, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and the British Heart Foundation.