Feature Biobanks

Genes on ice

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39162.630914.94 (Published 29 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:662
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

    As the UK's biobank begins its campaign to collect samples, Geoff Watts looks at what the banks do and the problems they raise

    Some people call them genome databases; others prefer the term human genetic research databases. But if you want to raise their profile and catch public attention there is only one label that cuts the mustard: biobank. A more colourful word, it also encompasses the notion of storage of biological samples for future reference.

    But in the context of genetics biobank means much more. Along with the biological samples—collected principally as a source of DNA— these banks compile detailed personal information about their donors: what they do, how they live, and the illnesses they have.

    Different banks have different aims.1 Some are private, some public; some are large, some small; some try to reflect entire populations, while others concentrate on smaller subgroups. But the underlying intention in most cases is much the same: to reveal how genetic and non-genetic factors interact in determining health and disease, and then to exploit this knowledge.

    The number of banks worldwide is uncertain. Isabel Fortier, an epidemiologist at the Montreal based Public Population Project in Genomics (P3G), tries to keep track of the international picture. She knows of around 70 that have 10 000 or more donors, and another 20 that are in the pipeline. Interest is growing worldwide, she says, in Asia as well as in Europe and North America.

    How they work

    A flavour of the biobanking enterprise can be gleaned from a handful of examples. One of the more ambitious schemes is UK Biobank, which began recruiting last week (www.ukbiobank.ac.uk). The intention is to gather information on the health and lifestyle of 500 000 volunteers aged between 40 and 69 years. Participants donate blood and urine samples, have basic health checks such as …

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