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Half a million Britons set for DNA disease quest

Ben Hirschler / Reuters | August 22 2006

A project to collect DNA samples from half a million Britons to unpick the genetic basis of killer diseases including cancer got the go-ahead on Tuesday, marking the start of the world's biggest medical experiment.

A team of international scientific and medical experts said the success of a local three-month pilot phase, involving 3,800 participants around Manchester, meant the UK Biobank project could now be rolled out nationwide from the end of 2006.

Over the next four years, blood and urine samples will be collected from volunteers aged 40 to 69, to help scientists unravel the genetic foundations of common diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and joint problems.

"For decades to come, the UK Biobank resource should provide researchers around the world with vital insights into some of the most distressing diseases of middle and old age," principal investigator Professor Rory Collins said in a statement.

The mapping of the human genome in 2000 opened the door to the detailed analysis of genes but experts are still grappling to understand how they interact with lifestyle and environment to determine why some people become sick and others do not.

In the long term, scientists believe the project could improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases and help to explain why certain people react differently to medications.

The 61 million pound ($115.6 million) project will be funded by the British government, the Wellcome Trust medical research charity and other sources.

Some researchers have expressed concerns about the design, size and cost of the project, but Collins said he was confident it would produce valuable medical breakthroughs.

A total of around 10 million samples are expected to be collected from the half million volunteers. That genetic data will be cross-referenced against information about patients' subsequent health, obtained with their permission.

Researchers from around the world will be able to apply to UK Biobank for access to the resource but there will be strict security systems to protect participants' privacy.

Health Minister Andy Burnham said Britain was "leading the world" with the project, which would underpin the country's academic and industrial research capability.

No one organization or commercial body will have exclusive access to the data but pharmaceutical companies are expected to be able to use the results to help design new drugs and diagnostic tests.

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