University of Leicester eBulletin

University of Leicester Academics Join 45 million Study That Could Help Lead Us to the Causes of Many Major Diseases

May 2003
No 117

A team of academics at the University of Leicester are to play a leading role in a 45 million national study that could make a major contribution to our understanding of the causes of common life-threatening and debilitating illnesses such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Leicester will host the administration centre for a consortium of seven universities tasked with recruiting 120,000 patients from GPs surgeries across the Trent, West Midlands and South West Regions. These patients will become part of half a million people nationally who will have their genetic make-up and lifestyles studied over a 15-year period under the ambitious UK Biobank project, being funded by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health.

By allowing the researchers to follow their health over this time, the volunteers could be helping to save the lives of thousands of people in generations to come - possibly even their own grandchildren.

In the past, studies have only been able to take into account lifestyle issues, such as diet and exercise, when predicting what factors may increase the risk of certain diseases. However, recent breakthroughs in the human genome project, which have already identified the function of many genes, mean that through simple blood tests the Biobank project will be able to study participants' genetic information as well and to see how the genes interact with lifestyle.

Professor Paul Burton, who is based in the University of Leicester's Department of Health Sciences and Institute of Genetics, and who is leading the team from Leicester said: "This is a very exciting study. It will help us to tie together genetic information from the human genome project with the major diseases that affect our modern society. This will help us to understand how genes and life style work together to make us healthy or unwell. This should not only help medical scientists to develop new treatments, but it will also allow us to target health promotion more successfully and to give a clearer message to people about what factors might substantially increase their personal risk of developing a serious illness and what they might be able to do to stay fit and healthy."

Professor Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester, is heading up Leicester's clinical team on the project. He said: "This is a bold step by the government and the funding agencies - to follow the health and lifestyle of half a million people over 15 years is a huge undertaking. However, the end benefits of the project could be enormous and we look forward to working with the people of Leicester and the whole of Trent. By donating their time, these volunteers could realistically help us to pinpoint the causes of many common diseases - in short they could help us to save thousands of lives."

One half a million healthy people aged between 45 and 69 recruited to the study will each be examined by a nurse researcher, give blood samples and will fill out an initial questionnaire on their diet and lifestyle. The participants will then be followed over a period of at least 15 years to see whether their lifestyle changes and whether they develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes.

The research teams will then study the genetic information and the lifestyle choices that individuals have made in order to identify any patterns and to determine the major risk factors for these diseases.

Analysis of the figures will start as soon as there is a large enough sample for the academics to work on. For example, statistics show that as many as one in three people in the UK Biobank age range may develop some form of heart disease within a five to seven-year period, whereas with breast cancer it will probably take between 10 to 15 years for enough cases to accumulate to allow analysis.

Entry to the study will be completely voluntary. Subjects will be informed of any health findings on their initial check up that may require investigation. However, in line with current international best practice in research ethics, participants will not be given the results of their genetic testing. This will help to avoid causing unwarranted anxiety about genetic factors that we are many years away from understanding properly and will help to protect individuals from unreasonable demands for information from, for example, insurance companies. Participants will, however, receive a regular newsletter about the study that will keep them up-to-date on the overall findings of the study.

As well as hosting the Administration Centre for the study, Leicester will house one component of the Trent Regional Collection Centre, along with the universities of Nottingham and Sheffield.

Together with the universities of Birmingham and Warwick, which will form a regional collection centre for the West Midlands, and the universities of Bristol and the Peninsula Medical School, forming a collection centre in the South West region, they will form UK Biobank's Fosse Way 'spoke' which will receive around 7 million in funding for this study. Other spokes are to be created in Wales, Scotland, Oxford and London - together covering the recruitment of patients from all over England, Scotland and Wales. The information collected by these 'spokes' will then be sent through to a main 'hub' based in Manchester, where the quality of the data can be checked and the analysis of the figures overseen. In all, the nation is investing 45 Million to set up this ambitious project.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

More information is available from Prof Paul Burton on 0116 252 3156 or Press Officer Ather Mirza in the University's Press Office on 0116 252 3335.

        The UK Biobank is a major UK-based resource that will be used by the world's top scientists to explore the roles of nature and nurture in health and disease. The project will involve up to 500 000 volunteers, aged 45-69, who will complete lifestyle questionnaires and provide a blood sample for DNA and other analysis. This information, together with their medical histories, will be combined to create an anonymised national database - the UK Biobank. This will serve as a resource for scientists to investigate and determine the factors that cause the common disorders of later life, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and type 2 diabetes. National and international experts in the field have rigorously and independently reviewed the science of the project, which has the support of a number of leading research charities. It is being funded jointly by the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health.  

UK Biobank enters new phase [joint press release issued by The Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and the Department of Health]

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