UK Biobank embarks on second stage of whole-body scanning study

Patient lying down about to go into body scanner

The whole-body scanning study has moved into the exciting second stage to re-scan 60,000 volunteers.

UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK participants.

Scientists will use images from the world’s largest whole-body scanning study to see how people’s brains, hearts, abdomens and bones have aged. This will accelerate research into the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of our major diseases.

UK Biobank’s imaging study is the result of a collaboration between:

  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Wellcome
  • British Heart Foundation
  • Dementias Platform UK

Additional funding to re-scan 60,000 participants is being provided by:

  • MRC
  • Calico
  • Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI)

Since 2014, UK Biobank has collected vast amounts of body scanning data using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, X-ray and dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), with the aim of imaging 100,000 participants.

Now, 60,000 people are returning to have their second scan so that scientists can see the changes that have taken place since their initial scans were taken two to seven years previously.

Patients undergo five hours of scans to collect the data. This includes:

  • MRI scans of the brain, heart and abdomen
  • DEXA measures of bone density
  • ultrasounds of carotid arteries

Comparing the data to understand disease

These comparisons are vital for assessing diseases that tend to develop later in life, such as cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases.

Scientists can cross-reference the imaging data with existing health and genetic data in UK Biobank to understand the mechanisms by which diseases change over time.

In the case of dementia, seeing how changes to the brain’s structure and function affect the risk of disease could enable pre-symptomatic diagnoses that lead to earlier therapeutic interventions.

Facilitating collaborative research

This unique data, unmatched on the scale or comprehensiveness, will be made available to approved researchers around the world, facilitating invaluable collaborative research comparing baseline and repeat-imaging data.

The study has already led to the development of methods that can predict a person’s genetic risk of developing a wide range of conditions.

Many more fundamental discoveries

Professor Paul Matthews, Chair of the UK Biobank Imaging Working Group and the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, and Head of the Department of Brain Sciences and UK Dementia Research Institute Centre at Imperial College London, 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.

A truly unique project

Professor Sir Rory Collins, Principal Investigator of UK Biobank:

Most large studies typically scan just a single body part of a few thousand people, so this project is truly unique as not only are we working at a vastly bigger scale, but we record images of multiple parts of each person’s body, so you can study the whole individual and see how it all relates.

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