An enormous online database of medical and lifestyle records from half a million middle-aged Britons is published on Friday, giving scientists a powerful new tool to study diseases such as cancer, dementia and heart disorders.
Public health researchers anywhere in the world can access anonymised records in the UK Biobank to help unravel the genetic and environmental factors that lead some people to develop diseases while others do not.
They will be able to highlight groups of people who have been diagnosed with a specific condition and then look back through their records to see what common factors might have contributed to their illness.
In one example of how the system could be used, researchers might compare television viewing, metabolism, and genetic makeup, in people with the highest and lowest body fat. Or differences in smoking and exercise habits could be compared in those who show the greatest and least signs of cognitive decline at age 50.
Scientists who use the system must publish their findings and add their results to the database so other public health experts can use them. The volunteers’ medical records are linked to the database, so information on their health is regularly updated.
“The breadth and depth of the data make this a unique resource for researchers around the world,” said Rory Collins, co-director of Oxford University’s Clinical Trial Service Unit and the UK Biobank’s principal investigator. “We want it to be used as much as possible to improve people’s health.”
The volunteers, aged 40 to 69 years old, include 26,000 diabetics, 41,000 teetotallers and 11,000 heart attack patients who attended recruitment centres in shopping centres and other public areas throughout the UK between 2006 and 2010.
Doctors recorded their height, weight, body fat, hand grip strength, bone density, lung function, blood pressure and memory function, alongside information on their diet, early life experiences and psychological factors, such as how often they saw friends and family.
The last 100,000 participants were given high-resolution eye scans that specialists will use to understand how the eye ages and what factors lie behind common eye diseases. In the next few years, doctors hope to add MRI scans from a fifth of the volunteers.
Some 15 million blood, urine and saliva samples were taken and put in cold storage for scientists to test. Two thirds of the specimens are held on a site in Stockport, with a third stored at –196C at a backup facility 12 miles away. The specimens are retrieved by a 1.5 tonne robot that moves up and down the storage hall on a track.
To use the UK Biobank, scientists must register and submit plans for their research, which will then be reviewed before approval. Researchers will be charged only for retrieving samples and any tests that are arranged by staff at the facility.