The largest project to scan the human body and create the world's biggest database of internal organ imagery was launched yesterday (April 14th). Scientists hope that the project will provide a new level of insight into the development of diseases, and may in the future allow health professionals to catch conditions such as heart disease and dementia before they become life threatening.
The study will form a significant part of the existing UK Biobank project, which was launched in 2006. The scans will be added to existing data on volunteers' health to create a comprehensive catalogue of information.
Some 100,000 volunteers are taking part in the scanning project, which will feature an MRI assessment of the heart, including thickness of the heart wall and volume of blood flow, as well as MRI measures of the brain and fat, X-rays to determine bone density, and more.
Costing some £43 million, the project has been funded by the government, the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation. The information it gathers will act as a vast resource for all scientists.
It is hoped that, in as little as ten to 15 years, the insights it will provide will help health professionals to spot signs of conditions before they really develop, and take the appropriate preventative measures.
Dr Sara Marshall, head of clinical research at the Wellcome Trust, said "Each day we're discovering more and more about how genetics and lifestyle play a part in the onset and development of diseases, but this extra piece of the puzzle – seeing physical changes even before symptoms develop – will give us a completely new perspective on how we can prevent and treat them," she said.
UK Biobank was established ten years ago as a research resource for health. Across this decade, it has collected data on some 500,000 volunteers, charting everything from weight and height to diet and physical activity, alongside blood samples and genetic data.
Speaking about how important the combination of this data with the imaging is, Cathie Sudlow, professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and UK Biobank's chief scientist, said: "What makes it truly transformational is the opportunity to combine the rich imaging data with the wealth of other information already available or being collected from participants, particularly their health and diseases during follow-up for many years to come."