Thumbs Up for U.K. Biobank

After nearly 7 years of planning, U.K. Biobank--which will ultimately become the world's largest repository of medical material and data--has been given the green light to go nationwide across Britain. According to U.K. Biobank's mission statement, the material collected will allow researchers to study how the complex interplay of genes and environment affects disease risk. Critics are concerned, however, that the project could produce misleading results.

First proposed in 1999, U.K. Biobank seeks to collect detailed medical information--such as blood and urine samples, genetic data, and lifestyle reports--from individuals in the U.K. who agree to participate. The program had its first test run in March, with 3800 people sampled from the Manchester area (Science, 17 March 2006, p. 1535; http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol311/issue5767/s-scope.dtl#top). Today, Biobank officials announced that an independent review panel--which includes the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, the project's funders--has judged the pilot trial a success, in terms of its ability to recruit enough volunteers and staying within budget.

Biobank will now expand its efforts across Britain. Over the next four years and with a budget of $115 million, the program will start recruiting 500,000 adults aged 40 to 69, nearly 1% of the British population. The researchers will collect blood and urine samples from the volunteers and track their health through medical records over the remainder of their lifetimes.

The information will be stored online and freely accessible to scientists worldwide whose applications pass muster with an ethics committee and an independent ethics and governance council, says Biobank principal investigator Rory Collins. The information, however, will be stripped of personal identifiers to protect the volunteers' confidentiality, together with strict security measures. It's hoped that this vast trove of information will clarify how genetic and lifestyle factors interact to cause common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

The data will be a "tremendous resource" for years to come, says review panel member Leena Peltonen of the National Public Health Institute, Helsinki, Finland. As time passes--and Biobank collects more information from participants--researchers will have more data at their disposal to investigate disease links, she says.

But others foresee complications. One of the "key issues that needs to be resolved is the relationship between commercial companies and Biobank," says Helen Wallace of the U.K. lobby group Genewatch, which is concerned that commercial companies might use data from Biobank to patent gene sequences that might be tied to disease. Wallace also worries that researchers will have difficulty accounting for many of the environmental factors that affect people's health, for example, early exposure to pollution. That could make it difficult to draw accurate links between environmental factors and disease, she says.

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