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After eight years of planning, criticism, and debate, UK Biobank has begun recruiting its intended 500000 volunteers. The first batch of 10000 invitation letters began arriving last week at the homes of people aged 40-69 living in the Manchester area.
Recruitment is scheduled to last four years. The state of health of members of the resulting cohort will be tracked through medical records for at least the next three decades. Blood samples taken at the initial assessment will make it possible to compare these data with each person's genetic make- up. The ultimate aim of this large epidemiological study is to untangle the interplay between heredity and environment in a variety of conditions, from cancer and diabetes to dementia and dental disease.
UK Biobank's principal investigator is Rory Collins, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford. When he last spoke to the BMJ the recruitment process was still being piloted to identify any snags that might need to be ironed out (2006;332:1052, doi: 10.1136/bmj.332.7549.1052-i). Full scale recruitment, he said, would not begin until it could be guaranteed to operate smoothly.
The pilot study, he now reports, went well. Concerns over how people might react to being approached turned out to be misplaced. The invitation letter included a phone number through which it was possible to learn more about UK Biobank. “Listening to phone conversations,” Professor Collins says, “you could hear people who'd probably called in to say they weren't interested changing their minds, and then agreeing to take part.”
The pilot explored how well people coped with touch screen questionnaires and what they thought of the explanatory information provided. It also checked that they had clearly understood what they were consenting to.
The final step in the preparations was to put the full scheme out for one more international review. “Along with the results of the pilot we circulated the final questionnaire and planned measurements to scientists around the world for one last look,” says Professor Collins. “As a result we made a few changes to the questions, added ultrasound to the measurements to get information about bone density, and that was about it.”
All UK Biobank's budgeting was done on the assumption of a 10% response rate to the invitation—which is what they got. “But the pilot was done in a vacuum,” Professor Collins points out. “There was no local awareness raising. Now we're into the main study and able to tell people about it, we hope to get an increased response rate.” He is confident that the scheme will achieve its half million recruitment target.
Welcoming the launch of UK Biobank, the health minister Lord Hunt commented that Britain is well placed to do research of this kind: “This vital project is only possible because of the unique role that the NHS plays in our lives, providing comprehensive care for people throughout the UK.” See Genes on Ice in Features p 662, doi=10.1136/bmj.39162.630914.94