GlaxoSmithKline and Regeneron have given their backing to a new project that will use patient data held by the UK Biobank.

The firms will get free access to the samples in return for covering the cost of sequencing it and, after a period of exclusivity, they will then allow the data to be plugged back into the resource for wider use.

The Biobank said the initiative would be the biggest ever genetics study and could usher in a “new era of drug development”.

Sir Rory Collins, UK Biobank principal investigator and BHF professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University, said: “As a result of the altruism and continued support of our volunteer participants, UK Biobank has amassed an enormous amount of securely-stored health, lifestyle, medical and biological data.

“Genetics research is already shaping better treatments. This exciting initiative is expected to start producing novel findings rapidly during this year and will make UK Biobank even more useful for health-related research.”

The Biobank’s pool of data and samples is drawn from half a million anonymous patients and is intended to throw new light on the causes of conditions such as cancer, heart disease and dementia.

GSK’s R&D president Patrick Vallance said: “I believe that we are in a new era of drug discovery because of a fundamental change in our understanding of human biology, driven largely by advances in human genetics.

“UK Biobank is one of the most important health resources available to scientists today, offering a rich source of information about health and disease and providing us with a unique opportunity to take that crucial first step in exploring new medicines – finding where to start.

Although the costs of gene sequencing are falling, it remains expensive to conduct on a large scale - to sequence data from all 500,000 participants in the BioBank would require an investment of some $150 million. Consequently, the BioBank said the injection of funds from GSK and Regeneron was a tremendous boost.