Last updated May 10, 2017
Imaging study yielding results
Information from the first 5,000 UK Biobank participants taking part in the world’s largest health imaging study has been released for health researchers to use in their own studies.
Exciting early results from analysing the brain imaging data alongside thousands of measures of lifestyle, physical activity, cognitive health and physical measures such as body-mass index (BMI) and bone density were published in the leading science journal Nature Neuroscience.
The high quality of the imaging data and very large number of scanned participants allowed researchers to identify more than 30,000 significant associations between the many different brain imaging measures and the non-imaging measures.
UK Biobank is also imaging participants’ hearts, abdomen and bones and is also taking advantage of the visit to ask participants to provide another sample of blood and to answer questions about their health and lifestyle. Some participants will also be asked if they would wear a heart monitor for two weeks.
“We are beginning to get a real sense of just how important this UK Biobank study is going to be in understanding a wide range of common illnesses from stroke and dementia to heart and liver disease,” said Professor Cathie Sudlow, UK Biobank Chief Scientist.
“The first analysis on 5,000 participants was incredibly informative. But we are aiming for 100,000 scanned participants and the excitement from the research community about such a huge collection of useful data is almost palpable.”
The imaging data will be available alongside detailed genetic analyses, plus information from medical records.
UK Biobank has been recruiting participants from the north and Midlands to attend its imaging centre in Stockport. A second centre will shortly open in Newcastle with a third, sometime later this year, planned for the Reading area.
UK Biobank is very grateful for the support of its participants to date, and very much hopes that its participants will continue to support this project. For many, it means further to travel than to their original assessment, but the cost of buying and running MRI equipment means it is not possible to run as many centres. Nevertheless, UK Biobank is always prepared to pay participants’ travel expenses.
The head and heart scans take 30 minutes each, and are a bit noisy. The whole assessment takes about 4 hours. “We know it is a huge commitment, but attendance makes such a difference to the information we can provide to scientists to help them study all sorts of diseases.
“The vast majority of people who attend say they would do it again and, overwhelmingly, they would recommend a friend, too!”
If you have already been invited but not responded, it’s not too late! Please make contact with our Participant Resource Centre to book your appointment. The PRC can be contacted on free phone 0800 0 276 276 (8am-7pm Monday-Saturday). Invitations to attend are by email. It will take several years for us to work through all participants, so please be patient if you have not had your invitation yet.
More information about our imaging project can be found on our Imaging site.
Genetic initiative to develop better treatments, more quickly
The very significant undertaking will take UK Biobank samples and turn them into important genetic data that will allow scientists to gain valuable insight into the factors that put some people at increased risk of disease, or make it more difficult for them to be successfully treated. These new genetic data will be returned to UK Biobank and will be available to all approved researchers anywhere in the world.
The sequencing focusses specifically on 1-2% of the genome, known as the exome (where the actual coding genes are contained), because it is this area that scientists believe has most relevance for drug therapy.
Scientists believe this is the biggest genetics study ever. It builds on previous genetics analyses that have already been undertaken on UK Biobank samples and which are now delivering extensive results.
A better understanding of human genetics has begun to revolutionise scientific discovery and the development of new medicines. Drug development can be a slow and involved process, but medicines developed with the help of human genetic evidence have a substantially higher success in improving patient care.
GSK and Regeneron have committed the initial investment to enable the sequencing of the first 50,000 samples, to be completed before the end of 2017. Sequencing of UK Biobank’s samples will be carried out at Regeneron, in New York State, which is one of the world’s largest human genetics sequencing centres. Sequencing of the full 500,000 samples in UK Biobank is expected to take three to five years.
Consistent with the founding principles of UK Biobank, the new data released by the work will be incorporated back into UK Biobank and available for all researchers following an exclusive period for GSK and Regeneron, in this case, 9 months. This period is fully in line with the exclusive period granted to other researchers conducting comparable analyses. The data will then be made available to the broader scientific community through UK Biobank. In due course, research findings will be published in peer-reviewed journals.
Sir Rory Collins, UK Biobank Principal Investigator and BHF Professor of Medicine & Epidemiology at Oxford University, said: “As a result of the altruism and continued support of our volunteer participants, UK Biobank has amassed almost 20 terabytes of securely-stored health, lifestyle, medical and biological data. Genetics research is already shaping better treatments. This exciting initiative is expected to start producing novel findings rapidly during this year and will make UK Biobank even more useful for health-related research.
“UK Government and charity medical research funders have invested about £200 million in UK Biobank. The costs of gene sequencing are falling, but doing it on a large scale is expensive – about $150 million if all 500,000 participants are sequenced. That is why it is so important that academia and industry work together. The initial investment by GSK and Regeneron will be a tremendous boost to the value of the UK Biobank resource for academic and industry researchers around the world, studying many different conditions.”
The work supports and is complementary to other genetic analyses that have already been done within UK Biobank (and are already advancing research). There are a number of advantages to industry taking on this workload. Firstly, the work will be done quickly, and securely – releasing a whole new wave of crucial health information, for other scientists to use. Secondly, it makes this expensive research affordable. It costs about $150 million to use this methodology to study the genetics of every UK Biobank participant; that sort of investment is beyond the pocket of most charity and government bodies that fund health research.
GSK has significant expertise in genomics and is increasingly incorporating the almost daily advances in this scientific field into its drug research programmes.
Patrick Vallance, President, R&D at GSK, said: “I believe that we are in a new era of drug discovery because of a fundamental change in our understanding of human biology, driven largely by advances in human genetics. UK Biobank is one of the most important health resources available to scientists today, offering a rich source of information about health and disease and providing us with a unique opportunity to take that crucial first step in exploring new medicines – finding where to start.
“Having been actively involved in the UK Biobank as a board member since 2013, I’m delighted that, through our collaboration with Regeneron, we can enrich this resource for the wider scientific community and also provide potential new opportunities for companies such as ours to develop new medicines.”
Comment from George D Yancopoulos, MD, PhD, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, said: “Our large-scale sequencing and analysis capabilities, coupled with UK Biobank’s vast trove of de-identified biological and medical information, pose tremendous opportunities for clinically meaningful discoveries that will positively impact patient outcomes.
“We have long-recognised that advancing the pace and clinical utility of human genetics research requires collaboration and an open exchange of data between industry, academia and public health groups, and we are pleased to expand upon our existing foundational research collaborations through this effort with the UK Biobank and GSK. For Regeneron, we believe this initiative will greatly enhance our existing efforts in gene discovery and genetics-guided drug development.”