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Biobank: Tracking the health of a generation

Fergus Walsh | 18:07 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010

cardiovascular.226_300.jpgYou might well ask whether there is anything left to test in my body. Having had all my genes sequenced, been given prototype vaccines, and had my brain scanned - twice - I have now taken part in the UK Biobank trial.

This involved three hours of tests and ended with me giving seven blood samples - fortunately this involved only one injection. There were also urine and saliva samples to donate. My genetic material was then shipped up to Stockport, to the Biobank freezer where it will be stored along with samples from all the 500,000 volunteers across the UK. I'll say more about that freezer later.

The UK Biobank scientists will track the health of this huge group of Britons for the next 30 years. With the help of NHS records, they will record every serious illness and death.

All volunteers undergo an array of physical checks. There are the obvious ones like height, weight, waist-to-hip ratio, eyesight, lung function, and hearing. And the less obvious: height while seated, heel density, eye pressure and grip strength.

Then, using a touch screen computer there were hundreds of questions to answer. Most were fairly straightforward and dealt with diet, exercise and lifestyle. I tried to work out, as I went along, what future health problems they were trying to anticipate. For example, there were memory tests to complete. If those who do badly at remembering pairs of cards go on to develop dementia in greater numbers, then it might point the way to early tests for dementia risk. There were lots of questions about diet and exercise which could cover an array of future illnesses.

Some subjects were highly personal: how many sexual partners have you had? Another was downright baffling: do you frequently break the speed limit on the motorway? This, apparently, is designed to show if you are a risk-taker. There was an option to skip any question that you didn't want to answer.

With all that genetic, physical and lifestyle data, scientists should be able to get a far better understanding of why some people fall ill and others don't. They will have a huge storehouse of genetic material to compare, which they will be able to cross-reference against the results of physical checks. The hope is that it will lead to better and earlier diagnosis of disease

And the volunteers will be invited to take part in further health checks and surveys in the future.

The UK Biobank will really come into its own in 30 years time, when many of the 500,000 volunteers have developed diseases or died. By 2040 the research will be in the hand of scientists who are probably now at primary school. It will be them and their children who will benefit the most from the project.

It is surely an admirable and unselfish gesture of half a million adults in Briton to agree to undergo all those tests, giving up their genetic secrets, in the knowledge that it is for the benefit of future generations, rather than themselves.

Finally, back to that freezer. It's got to be pretty big to hold all those samples. I'm told it's the biggest freezer of its kind in Europe - I reckon about the size of two medium family houses. I went inside because, being a TV correspondent, that's what you do. The freezer in your kitchen is set at minus 18C, which is fine for ice-cream and peas. The trays inside the Biobank freezer are down to minus 80C. After 10 minutes of filming and taking photographs, my ears were getting frost-bite, so we left before others bit of my genetic material were left behind.
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