BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - UK BioBank, the world’s largest study of genes and disease, formally gets off the ground today, when the first volunteers enroll at an assessment center near Manchester to give blood and urine samples and agree to have their future health monitored.

The £61 million (US$105.6 million) project eventually will recruit 500,000 people ages 40 to 69. The objective of the initial phase is to test all the procedures involved in recruiting volunteers, ensuring full consent, and taking and processing samples.

When the BioBank was proposed in 2000 it was pitched as a discovery engine for pinpointing genes associated with chronic disease. But the study design was criticized by both politicians and by scientists, including Alec Jeffreys, inventor of DNA fingerprinting, and John Sulston, who led the UK’s contribution to the Human Genome Project.

As a result, the emphasis has shifted to portray BioBank as one of the most powerful epidemiological studies ever undertaken.

The recently appointed principal investigator, Rory Collins, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University, invoked the vision of studies that detected the link between smoking and lung cancer and cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease.

"By being so large and so detailed, UK BioBank will be able to study many different risk factors together, each of which may have only modest effects on the likelihood of getting some particular disease."

Taking part in the study has been likened to making a blood donation. (UK donors are not paid.) Noting that the 40- to 69-year-old volunteers are at risk of developing a wide range of disabling and life-threatening conditions over the next few decades, Alan Langlands, chairman of BioBank, said: "Following them will allow researchers to work out why some develop a particular disorder, while others do not. This should help enormously in the development of new ways to prevent and treat disease."

The project is a massive undertaking, involving purpose-designed automated systems for blood sample preparation and storage, retrieval and tracking of around 10 million samples. They must be kept for several decades. When BioBank is running nationwide, it will need to take samples from 1,000 people per day.

One of the most vocal critics, Ian Gibson, a member of Parliament, acknowledged he had concerns about BioBank previously. "As the project has evolved, I’ve had more opportunities to discuss its aims, design and future plans," he said. "Now, I am very confident that it will succeed and be an extraordinarily valuable resource for public health in the UK."

Similarly, Jeffreys said, "This is an important initiative that is now developing focus and which promises to provide an invaluable resource for investigating the causes of common diseases that will last for decades into the future."

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