The UK Biobank project, which aims to collect biological samples and medical information from half a million Britons, has finally got underway in Manchester, after eight years of preparation and planning. The scheme aims to recruit volunteers between the ages of 40-69, who will give up 90 minutes of their time to visit an assessment centre, where they will answer questions in relation to their health and lifestyle and provide measurements such as blood pressure, weight, lung function and bone density as well as blood and urine samples. In addition to this, volunteers will have to provide consent to Biobank tracking the state of their health through medical records for at least the next 30 years.
Phase one of the project involves sending out some 10,000 invitation letters asking them to take part. This recruitment process is proposed to last for a period of four years, and will begin at other assessment centres across the country over the next few months. The Executive Director of UK Biobank, Dr Tim Peakman, says that the project relies heavily on the goodwill of the community, and hopes this willingness to help others will be a powerful motivation for people to take part.
This epidemiological project will help clinicians and researchers in the medical field to build up a greater insight and understanding of the causes of many common diseases and to improve their prevention and treatment; they hope to do this by studying the roles of genes and the environment in health and disease. It is hosted by the University of Manchester, has the support of the NHS and is a collaborative effort between 22 UK universities. Funding for this project is from the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health, the Scottish Executive and the Northwest Regional Development Agency.
The project has secured approval from ethics and regulatory groups regarding all aspects of the scheme, including the storage of around 15 million blood and urine samples that will be stored for decades, and authorisation has been given in relation to access to participants' medical records over many years.
One concern that arose was that participants may give consent in the misconception that their role in the scheme will benefit them and be used like a health check, however this is not the case and volunteers will just leave with a list of personal health-related measurements and some indication of how they compare to standard values. Rory Collins, UK Biobank's Principal Investigator explained that the pilot study explored what people thought of the explanatory information provided, and also checked that they had clearly understood what they were consenting to.
Welcoming the launch of UK Biobank, the project has the support of health minister Lord Hunt, who commented that Britain is well placed to do research of this kind: 'This vital project is only possible because of the unique role that the NHS plays in our lives, providing comprehensive care for people throughout the UK'.