UK Biobank, the large-scale biomedical database and research resource, together with the Medical Research Council (MRC); Calico Life Sciences, a biotechnology organization founded by Alphabet and Arthur D. Levinson; and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropy founded by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, today announced an ambitious project to conduct a repeat set of imaging scans on 60,000 UK Biobank participants. This £30m project will capture a repeated set of highly-detailed, multi-organ images from a large cohort of participants, allowing researchers to assess changes in physiology over time. This effort will enable a better understanding of the trajectory of major chronic diseases of mid-to-later life and enable researchers to explore the mechanisms through which diseases occur in individuals.
The first phase of the UK Biobank imaging study began in 2014 and has already captured Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data from the brain, heart and abdomen, together with bone density and ultrasound scans of the carotid arteries, from over 50,000 participants, with a view to collecting these data on up to 100,000 participants over the next two years. The second phase of the project will involve performing repeat imaging on 60,000 of these participants, two to seven years after their initial scan.
The baseline imaging project is already the largest dataset of its kind in the world and the addition of the repeat imaging data will provide a unique set of longitudinal measures for the scientific community to assess changes in participants’ health as they age. When combined with extensive phenotypic and genetic data already available to researchers in UK Biobank’s database, this will advance understanding of the progression of a wide range of chronic diseases of mid-to-later life, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Repeat imaging will be particularly valuable for studying diseases such as dementia as it will enable research into how early (i.e. pre-symptomatic) changes in the structure and function of the brain over time are related to dementia risk. Such insights from repeated scans could lead to improvements in diagnosis before symptoms even occur and enable the early interventions of potential therapies.
Longitudinal imaging has already produced novel research findings within UK Biobank. For example, a group of researchers at Oxford University recently conducted a study that used repeat imaging data from about 2,000 UK Biobank participants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The availability of imaging data from participants both before and after SARS-CoV-2 infection made it possible to identify short-term changes associated with mild infection in specific parts of the brain, especially those related to smell and taste. Other researchers using the repeat imaging data found no evidence for persistent change to the heart following SARS-CoV-2 infection, and a separate study found a small but statistically significant decrease in lung volume associated with COVID-19 infection.
Professor Paul Matthews, head of the Department of Brain Sciences and UK Dementia Research Institute Centre at Imperial College London and Chair of the UK Biobank Imaging Working Group, said: “UK Biobank’s biomedical database is already the most comprehensive database in the world for scientific and health related research. The collection of a repeat set of whole-body scans on such a large scale will enable many more fundamental discoveries, better understanding of early disease stages and their diagnosis, and support the development of new treatments for diseases of mid-to-later life. We are grateful to the MRC, Calico and CZI for their generous funding of this project and to the incredible UK Biobank participants without whose dedication and altruism we would not be able to conduct this ambitious study.”
Professor John Iredale, MRC executive chair said: “The UK Biobank imaging study has created a world leading biomedical database which has changed our understanding of a wide range of diseases. The expansion of the repeat imaging through this significant partnership of MRC with Calico and CZI will greatly enhance UK Biobank’s position as a pioneer of health-related research and accelerate this revolution in our understanding of the genesis and development of diseases. We are proud to be a funder of such an ambitious project, one that advances our scientific knowledge of human disease and will ultimately save lives.”
Arthur D. Levinson, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO at Calico, said: “We are excited to partner with the MRC and CZI on the UK Biobank Repeat Imaging Project, which highlights Calico’s long-standing interest in understanding the key drivers of age-related disease outcomes. Repeat imaging in large human cohorts like the UK Biobank will provide a dynamic view of individual aging trajectories in ways unmatched by other approaches.”
Stephen Quake, head of science at CZI, said: “The UK Biobank Repeat Imaging Project is a unique opportunity to measure human biology in action and to advance our understanding of the human body in health and disease. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is proud to support the creation of this large-scale scientific reference, which combines medical imaging with genetic data so that basic scientists and clinical and translational researchers can better address the causes and trajectories of a wide range of diseases.”
The MRC, CZI and Calico have each committed £10m of funding for this project.
About UK Biobank
UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing anonymised genetic, lifestyle and health information from half a million UK participants. UK Biobank’s database, which includes blood samples, heart and brain scans and genetic data of the volunteer participants, is globally accessible to approved researchers who are undertaking health-related research that’s in the public interest.
UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40-69 years in 2006-2010 from across the UK. With their consent, they provided detailed information about their lifestyle, physical measures and had blood, urine and saliva samples collected and stored for future analysis.
UK Biobank’s research resource is a major contributor in the advancement of modern medicine and treatment, enabling better understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses — including cancer, heart diseases and stroke. Since the UK Biobank resource was opened for research use in April 2012, 30,000 researchers from 100 countries have been approved to use it and more than 5,000 peer-reviewed papers that used the resource have now been published.
UK Biobank is generously supported by its founding funders the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome, as well as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The organisation has over 200 dedicated members of staff, based in multiple locations across the UK. You can find out more about UK Biobank at http://www.ukbiobank.ac.uk.
About the Medical Research Council (MRC)
The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-three MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. For more information: www.ukri.org/councils/mrc/.
Calico (Calico Life Sciences LLC) is an Alphabet-founded research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies and model systems to increase our understanding of the biology that controls human aging. Calico will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives. To learn more about Calico, visit www.calicolabs.com.
About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease and improving education, to addressing the needs of our communities. Through collaboration, providing resources and building technology, our mission is to help build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit chanzuckerberg.com.
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Leah Duran, + 1 650-213-6170