Britain plans to begin collecting DNA and medical information from hundreds of thousands of Britons by early 2006 for a database that could help scientists identify genes and other factors in common diseases, a researcher said Tuesday.
The project, known as UK Biobank, will gather and analyze the data from 500,000 volunteers for up to 30 years. Over time, the database, which is backed by Britain's government, could help researchers understand how genes, lifestyle and environment lead to diseases such as high blood pressure and cancer.
Bill Ollier, a University of Manchester professor and the project's scientific adviser, said researchers will begin recruiting the first volunteers, aged 40 to 69, from across the nation sometime later this year or early next year.
They will analyze volunteers' blood and urine samples and track smoking history, living conditions, air quality and diet, he said.
Though the biobank may not statistically represent all of Britain's ethnic groups, "geographically, it will be complete," Ollier told an annual scientific meeting in Japan's western city of Kyoto.
The meeting, organized by the Human Genome Organization, assembles the world's top genetics experts.
"What we are now talking about is the next stage of implementation and use of the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project," an international effort that mapped the complete set of human DNA code in 2001, said Walter Bodmer, a renowned British genetics researcher.
The idea isn't new: Sweden and Iceland have amassed such data for years, and other countries such as the United States are sponsoring smaller studies on people with debilitating diseases such as diabetes and schizophrenia.
Scientists hope such large-scale, DNA-based population studies can help them pinpoint genetic links to disorders and find cures. Doing so is tricky because it's often difficult to attribute a disorder to a person's genes, pollution or diet - or a mix of all of them.
However, critics worry that the centralization of data on people is ripe for abuse by insurers or pharmaceutical companies, who might deny applicants with a particular genetic profile, or even by authorities who could use it to promote discrimination.
Ollier said UK Biobank had been planned for five years because officials wanted to assuage such concerns.
"We have had lots of public discussions about the abuse of genetic information and privacy issues. Rather than shy away from this we have consulted with people and held open debate to reassure them that the checks and balances are in place," he said.
Kari Stefansson, president and chief executive of DeCode Genetics, said Iceland's database has allowed researchers there to locate genes linked to 38 diseases and isolate the genes they believe cause 15 other diseases.
KENJI HALL, Associated Press Writer