UK Biobank, the UKs project to create a database of genetic, environmental and lifestyle data for use by medical researchers, has been given approval to begin work nationally (see BBC news story). The project, funded by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Scottish Executive and the Northwest Regional Development Agency, aims to obtain DNA samples and other information from 500,000 adults aged 40-69 (see previous news story). The resulting database will be available for researchers to study genetic and environmental causes of disease.

The project had undergone a three-month pilot phase in Manchester, hosted by the University of Manchester, in order to test out the protocol (i.e. arrangements for recruitment, the taking of samples, etc.) An independent panel, set up by the funders, has now assessed the results of the pilot phase and unanimously agreed that the project should go forward. According to a press release, the panel agreed that, UK Biobank has the potential, in ways that are not currently available elsewhere, to support a wide range of research, particularly investigations into complex interactions of various exposures, including genetic and lifestyle factors in the pathways to disease and health and that it would be held up as a gold standard across the world. The mechanics of the project were examined closely and the panel was impressed by the new standards created for automated blood sample processing and storage and the computerised system to track samples. Also much work has gone into the ethics and governance arrangements for the project, ensuring that the data is collected in a responsible way, with full informed consent from participants and adequate protections placed on confidential information.

Now that the protocol has been approved, a three-to-four year recruitment phase will begin, with 35 centres in England, Scotland and Wales, each open for a six-month period, recruiting participants and collecting data, in order to collect a representative sample of the UKs population. Professor Rory Collins, UK Biobanks Principal Investigator, is understandably pleased with the results of the panel review. Clearly, everyone at UK Biobank is delighted with the support and enthusiasm that this unique public health project has received from the funders and, in particular, from the eminent independent experts who scrutinised every detail of our protocol and plansFor decades to come, the UK Biobank resource should provide researchers around the world with vital insights into some of the most distressing diseases of middle and old age.