Medical technology and practices have been advancing at an astronomic rate over the past few decades. The rapidly increasing capabilities of computing power has led to much faster research and less time required to test and analyze large data sets. Recently, the long-anticipated release of health and genetic information on half a million British people in 2016 has led to a shockwave of medical innovation. The accumulation and testing is conducted by UK Biobank, a public consortium consisting of government agencies and medical organizations, whose sole goal is creating a global health resource that documents genes and health of a population. UK Biobank’s significant cannot be understated – it is the first, free public gene bank that is accessible to everybody, and the information has the potential to give incredible insight into how certain genes can lead to the manifestation of certain behaviors, traits, or even diseases. Most importantly, UK Biobank provides an invaluable resource that can lead to an incredible jump for new medicine and understanding of the human body.
To help us understand the implications of UK Biobank will be Dr. Imran Haque, an internist and general practitioner based out of North Carolina. He is very excited about the implications that the data has on the understanding of the human body and how it can help accelerate development of medicine by years or decades. To help us understand exactly why UK Biobank is so important, Dr. Imran Haque will be leveraging his extensive experience of over 15 years as a doctor to explain how leveraging the new knowledge about genome relationships and people’s health can ultimately lead to better and more effective medicine.
UK Biobank – 20+ Years in the Making
UK Biobank is the brainchild of British scientific and medical leaders, who banded together to raise about $250 million dollars in order to map the genome, habits, and health of as many British citizens as possible. The project was especially active from 2006 to 2010, where the team administered tests to half a million volunteers. In the end, one of every 125 people in the country signed up to donate their genetic and health information through a simple DNA chip test and a series of questionaires. The DNA chip test is a relatively inexpensive test that can pull in a range of high level information, which pulls in 835,000 genome data points that can differ from one person to another. What this means is that UK Biobank has a tremendous amount of information on people’s genetic makeup, their everyday habits, and their overall health over a period of time, and this information has already revealed key genetic markers that can lead to anxiety or schizophrenia. Perhaps the most important part of UK Biobank is that it functions as a public resource – meaning that it’s practically free for organizations and pharmaceutical companies to use. Dr. Imran Haque believes that amassing all the data will require time to parse through all of it and understand correlations between genetics and habits, but the knowledge will lead to a significant step forward for medicine.
The Implications of UK Biobank
Already, the huge amount of information released through UK Biobank has led to significant developments in the medical community. Researchers in UK and around the world have jumped on the information provided by the study and its already revealed links between genes and behaviors. A small, two day study by Benjamin Neal’s team out of the Broad Institute in Cambridge demonstrates exactly how much can be derived from the data – his research team could predict a person’s height, diabetes, and even amount of alcohol consumed based on the DNA set. While there is no specific “TV-watching gene,” it is important to realize that a person’s behaviors can be strongly governed by minute contributions from their six-billion human genome, and being able to capture and map the gene clusters that lead to certain human tendencies can give a level insight on the human body that was never available before. In fact, biologists out of King’s College in London leveraged the huge data set of UK Biobank to conduct one of the largest studies on anxiety – where the team found four new chromosome “hits” that play a role in anxiety. Before UK Biobank, this type of study would have been impossible because available data sets were neither large nor detailed enough. The data available can lead to breakthroughs in understanding how certain illnesses such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s can manifest. Dr. Imran Haque points out that the potential of utilizing UK Biobank’s information is huge – it can lead to better knowledge, more effective medicine, and more accurate illness diagnosis.
Knowledge Drives the Future of Medicine
Dr. Imran Haque firmly believes that more knowledge about the human body will only help drive medicine forward. Whether it is making patients more aware of their personal health or giving researchers more resources, more information will make for more effective medicine. The benefits of UK Biobank have not yet been fully realized, and being able to extract knowledge and meaning from the huge data dump will take time. Already, there have been breakthroughs in medicine due to extrapolating the data in fields of mental health, behavioral medicine, and even physical therapy. It’s also important to realize that UK Biobank is just one of many genetic information databases – there a number of other government and private institutions that have compiled their own information, such as Kadoorie Biobank in China or 23andMe, a personal genetics company with profiles on 2 million people. While the data collected by UK Biobank is extensive, Dr. Imran Haque points out that it is not detailed enough to predict when patients will get ill, but is more of a powerful research tool that can be used to discover more about relationships between genes and health.