UK Biobank opened up to researchers 18 months ago. Almost 900 researchers have registered with the Resource and thousands more are expected as more health information is added over time. Research highlights include:
UK Biobank data are being used to study rheumatoid arthritis, a common type of arthritis that causes pain, stiffness and disability. The illness affects more than 600,000 people in the UK. Researchers know that some people are more prone to the disease because of their genes, but lifestyle factors such as smoking are important. Using UK Biobank information, researchers will create the world’s largest pre-clinical group of patients, who have antibodies to the disease but as yet have no symptoms. This will allow them to ask lots of questions about how and why the disease develops.
The eye images provided by UK Biobank are being used to investigate diabetic retinopathy (the commonest cause of vision loss in working age individuals), age-related macular degeneration (commonest cause of vision loss in the elderly) and glaucoma (commonest cause of vision loss globally). They are also helping scientists to study myopia and retinal detachment, hypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. The retina is one of the few places in the human body that allows easy, non-invasive observation of blood vessels, and there is mounting evidence that features associated with retinal vessels are early indicators of vascular disease.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Cigarette smoke is a known and important risk factor for COPD. UK Biobank data will be used to improve understanding of the role that diet may play. Processed meat and refined grains are thought to increase the risk of respiratory disease and the consumption of fruit and vegetables to reduce risk.
Information collected during participants’ initial assessment visit will help scientists improve their understanding of coeliac disease and the impact it has on people’s well-being.
UK Biobank data will help scientists to clarify what factors (including height and weight, diet, alcohol intake, physical activity), are associated with risk of developing prostate cancer and the mechanisms through which they may exert an effect.
Researchers will use UK Biobank data to study the role diet may play in causing depression, an illness that is common and costly to the individual and society. Genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3rd of the risk and environmental factors for about 2/3rds, of which psychosocial adversity and stress are important. Little is known about how diet and obesity-related disorders may impact on depression though it is thought that they do. It is possible diet could be modified to offset the biochemical consequences of genetic risk.
Cancer, heart disease, diabetes and shift work
Researchers expect UK Biobank data to help them gain a better understanding of the possible relationship between shift work and disease. They will compare participants who did and did not report shift/ night work against a wide range of illnesses. Previous studies have been inconclusive, but some researchers posit that disturbed patterns of certain hormones due to electric light at night, disturbed sleep or other lifestyle risk factors could put some workers at higher risk of disease.
Reproductive timing and well-being in women
Reproductive timing in women (ages at first period and menopause) is associated with various diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. Data from UK Biobank participants will provide an excellent opportunity to confirm these associations and identify their mechanisms. The team will also identify factors that influence risk of early menopause, which is one of the leading causes of infertility in the western world and becoming an increasing problem as more women choose to delay having children until their 30s.
Research is currently underway in the following cities: Aberdeen; Cambridge; Cardiff; Edinburgh; Exeter; Glasgow; Hong Kong; Leicester; Limburg, Netherlands; Linkoping, Sweden; London; Manchester; Nottingham, Oxford; Philadelphia, USA; Sydney, Australia
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