Biobanking on a Saturday night

I did my bit for biomedical research last night, spending a couple of hours as a participant in the UK Biobank project.

I was one of 400,000 middle-aged people who have undergone a long battery of mental, psychological and physical tests – and given blood, urine and saliva samples – in the cause of helping scientists to disentangle the links between genes, lifestyle, health and disease.

Biobank, with £60m funding from the UK government and Wellcome Trust, is building one of the world’s most ambitious medical/genetic databases.

Several weeks ago I was offered and accepted an appointment at 5.20pm on Saturday at Biobank’s Hounslow assessment centre (about half an hour’s drive from home). I received a well-written information leaflet, which emphasised the voluntary nature of the project and the participant’s right to withdraw at any point, followed by reminders of the appointment by post, email and text message.

So I arrived promptly for the assessment on the third floor of a modern suburban office block – a large open space with colour-coded booths round the edge.

After I’d checked in and confirmed again that I was happy to take part, the receptionist took me to a computer terminal where I completed a very detailed questionnaire about my lifestyle, from the number of pieces of dried fruit I ate per week to my consumption of various drinks, from my exercise habits to sex partners of the same and opposite gender. How long had I used a mobile phone and against which ear did I normally hold it? There was lots too about my mood, social and family contacts, and so on.

Then came computer tests of my reactions (how quickly could a press the button when two identical cards flashed on the screen?) and memory (could I remember patterns?). My hearing in each ear was probed at length, as I had to make out digits spoken at different volumes and against various background noises.

After the computer I was moved successively from one booth to another, where Biobank staff undertook various physical investigations, including size and shape, strength, bone density, lung function and eyesight. Finally after a phlebotomist had extracted seven tubes of my blood, I was sent to the gents to give a urine and a saliva sample, which I deposited in the centre’s fridge.

Participants leave with a basic one-page print-out of a few of their results. I was not surprised to find that my body-mass index was too high or my waise circumference “borderline”, though it was reassuring that my lung function was good and my bone normal.

But of course the individual’s assessment is not the point of the exercise. It is to play a tiny part in a vast research exercise that should benefit future generations.

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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