UK Leads European Biobank Progress

Pharma IQ

The UK Biobank has smashed its initial target of filing the DNA of 500,000 adults aged 40-69, in what is seen as being the most comprehensive health study in the nation’s history.

The project, which has so far cost £65 million, will be keeping track of each individual’s medical profile in a long-term effort to understand the genetic, clinical and environmental factors that impact on overall health. It is hoped that in building this data, major advances can eventually be made in diagnosing and combating illnesses.

Since the recruitment drive began three years ago, approximately one in 50 applicable British citizens volunteered to undergo assessment in several areas, including their personal and family medical history, lifestyle, diet and fitness. The gathered data and clinical samples are being stored in Stockport, where the confidentiality of donors is rigorously protected.

Dr Tim Sprosen, chief scientist on the programme, spoke of his appreciation for the huge response, but stressed patience in the wait for results to emerge.

"By putting together a vast amount of data together now on people's health, with the samples, we will get reliable answers to the kind of questions they want to know.

"How can I, as I get older, avoid diseases like dementia or cancer, and how can I improve the life of future generations - my children and my children's children?

"In 10 or 20 years time, we will be able to analyse things in the samples that researchers haven't even thought about yet…We are custodians of this resource. The next generation of scientists, who might still be in primary school today, will use new tests and be able to unlock new secrets as to how we prevent disease.”

Europe is seeing rapid progress in efforts to build national biobanks, as well as in efforts to share information between them to speed overall progress. However, long-term funding remains an issue.

Pauline Mattsson, a Ph.D. candidate at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, said: “The existing funding mechanisms in Europe are not suitable for the maintenance of biobanks, and this is a major problem. You can’t do any research before the infrastructure of the biobank is in place; in other words there is a need to create new funding mechanisms suited to biobanks.”

Speaking to Pharma IQ, Mark Divers, head of the KI Biobank project, said that integrating the international effort could well be the way forward in overcoming these obstacles.

“I think it’s important to collaborate in this area and to build teamwork as much as possible. That was one of my lessons from the high throughput screening world – collaboration is everything. This is not the kind of area where you make big progresses as rugged individuals. It’s definitely a teamwork area.”

Such an obstacle is under deep consideration in Germany, where the Helmholtz Cohort is aiming to recruit a total of 200,000 volunteers between 20 and 69 in a programme that is scheduled to last for several decades. The approach of this biobank intends to include at least one reassessment of participants after five years and detailed MRI scans of the subjects’ vital organs.

The €210 million cost is currently in negotiation to be shared between the Helmholtz Association and other public bodies. Once funding has been confirmed, trials are set to begin next year, with the full process in place by 2017.