In a further boost to the UK’s efforts to restore the country as a global hub for medical research, the six year-old UK Biobank project is opening up its store of health and lifestyle data to medical researchers both at home and abroad.

The announcement came just after the launch of the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, which will make available to researchers linked data from the National Health Service across primary, secondary and tertiary care.

UK Biobank already includes information on some 500,000 Britons, equating to about 20 terabytes of securely stored data. Volunteers aged 40-69 years were recruited via 22 assessment centres in Scotland, England and Wales between 2006 and 2010.

This resource will “grow hugely” over the coming years as stored samples are analysed, participants’ health tracked over several years, and the sources of health data further expanded, UK Biobank said.

For example, it will incorporate the results of tests on donated blood, urine and saliva samples, including genetic tests. And the outcomes of studies using the Biobank will be ploughed back into the resource for the benefit of other researchers.

Measures of height, weight, body fat, hand-grip strength, bone density, lung function and blood pressure were taken from the original participants, along with information about their medical histories and lifestyles.

Memory, diet, early-life factors and psychosocial events (e.g., how often people see family and friends) were also recorded. Plus, the last 100,000 participants underwent hearing, fitness and eye tests.

Access arrangements

Under the new access arrangements, UK Biobank will allow scientists working on health-related research that is in the public interest to tap into the accumulated data and explore why some people develop particular diseases in mid- to later life while others do not.  

The resource is expected to advance research into the causes, prevention and treatment of chronic and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression and arthritis, as well as eye, bone and muscle disorders.

Scientists from the UK and overseas, whether they work in the public or private sector, for industry, academia or a charity, will be able to use anonymised data from the Biobank, subject to verification that the research is health-related and in the public interest.  

Online applications

Online applications to use the resource will be overseen by the Access Sub-Committee of the UK Biobank Board, with further oversight from the independent UK Biobank Ethics & Governance Council.

An online Data Showcase will allow scientists and the public to see a summary of the information collected so far. Successful applications to use the resource will be published on the UK Biobank website as they are approved.

Globally unique

“UK Biobank is a globally unique resource which places the UK at the forefront of the quest to understand why some people develop life-threatening diseases or debilitating conditions,” commented Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor to the Department of Health.

“It has huge potential for future generations and will help us understand how our children and our children’s children can live longer, healthier lives.”

UK Biobank is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Department of Health for England, the Scottish and Welsh governments, and the British Heart Foundation.

Its new board chairman is Professor Sir Mike Rawlins, chair of the National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE).