UK Biobank has had a busy year improving the resource so that it is more useful for health research, and making health information available for registered scientists. The UK Biobank funders, The Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC) have recently approved funding for the next five years.
Three areas of particular importance are:
- Turning the genetic information into useful data for researchers
- Following your health by linking to information collected by other health organisations
- Developing UK Biobank’s imaging programme
The causes of most diseases are usually complex. At a biological level, they result from the interaction of our genes (see: Understanding genetics) and the way we live our lives. Genetic information is important because it can help to identify people most at risk of particular illnesses; it can allow the tailoring of treatments to individuals and it can suggest opportunities for new treatments. The research is costly, but new techniques are making it cheaper, quicker and more powerful and UK Biobank hopes to exploit these over the coming years.
UK Biobank’s job is to provide reliable and detailed information to health researchers in a way that does not identify our participants. We continue to ask participants about specific aspects of their lives (see: Questionnaires) and we are able to follow health through existing records (see: General practice linkage). Of particular importance is linking to GP records. This will help research into a huge number of complaints and conditions that cause pain and disability but do not generally require hospital treatment such as diabetes, migraine, back pain and depression.
Taking pictures of your brain, heart, fat and bones
UK Biobank has embarked on a hugely important enhancement to MRI scan 100,000 participants. This will provide information for detailed study of a wide range of common disorders, including heart attacks, strokes and dementia. The ability to photograph and measure fat volumes is transforming understanding about the nature of obesity (see: Imaging).
A word about cooperation & collaboration
It is UK Biobank’s intention that the resource be used as widely and wisely as possible so that advances in health come about quickest. We are committed to do all we can to achieve this. That’s why approved researchers from the UK & overseas can access the data and we welcome use by industry & academia (including charity and university-funded researchers) and the increasingly common collaboration between industry and academia. A huge number of scientists from the UK and overseas are working together on projects to ensure the best use is made of this valuable resource. One legacy of UK Biobank may be to encourage new collaborations between groups of scientists who may not have considered working together before, or using data in news ways – such as the UK Biobank Eye & Vision Consortium. We are grateful to the many researchers who have given up their time to support UK Biobank. Participants’ part in this collaboration is also very much appreciated.