The world's largest-ever medical study - the UK Biobank - has been given the thumbs-up by regulators to be rolled out nationwide from the end of 2006. They hope to recruit some 500,000 people - nearly 1% of the British population - over the next four years in a £61 million project to determine how our genes, lifestyle and the environment come together in the development of killer conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and joint disease.

Endorsement of the roll out comes after a successful pilot phase involving 3,800 participants in Manchester, UK, and has been given unanimous backing by an international team of scientists, as well as the project's founders, which include the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the government's Department of Health. “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,” notes the protocol's independent review panel, adding that the “approach to ethical oversight and governance of the resource was exemplary and would be held up as a gold standard across the world.” The project, it said, is already helping to pioneer new ways in which information can be gathered and collated.

Over the next three-four year recruitment period, blood and urine samples will be collected from people aged 40-69, and they will also be asked to complete a short interview and questionnaire relating to their health and lifestyle. This age group is being studied because they are at greatest risk of developing serious diseases - including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia - over the next few decades.

The samples - expected to total around 10 million - will be stored for decades and the researchers hope that these, combined with follow up of participants though medical records obtained with permission via the country's National Health Service, will make UK Biobank a uniquely valuable resource for access by approved medical researchers.

The idea for a UK Biobank was first proposed in 1999, and a provisional decision to fund it came in 2002. But it was not until earlier this year that the pilot phase got up and running, after wide-ranging criticisms over the design of the trial and the cost, but the panel's conclusion was that it will be an “amazingly rich resource that justifies the initial establishment costs.”