World’s biggest body scanning project to shed new light on major diseases

body scanning
The world’s largest health imaging study has been launched by the UK Biobank to create the biggest collection of scans of internal organs.

With funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust, and the British Heart Foundation (BHF), the project will transform the way scientists study a wide range of diseases, including dementia, arthritis, cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

The £43m study will involve imaging the brain, heart, bones, carotid arteries and abdominal fat of 100,000 current participants of UK Biobank, a project set up in 2006 by the MRC and Wellcome Trust to improve health by by studying half a million people across the UK.

Professor Paul Matthews, Head of the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, chairs the group of academic experts who have been supporting UK Biobank to create this additional resource.

He said: “One of the crucial questions we can start to answer is, what happens in the brain years before dementia, stroke or other disorders are diagnosed? Can we understand it and find new ways to treat or prevent the onset? Scientists will also be better able to discover how brain diseases such as depression, stroke or Alzheimer’s disease are affected by our genes, environments and lifestyles.”

The multi-organ scans will be analysed alongside the vast data already collected from UK Biobank participants. This extra layer of data, for all health scientists to access, will give new perspectives on the best way to prevent and treat multi-faceted conditions like arthritis, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis. It will also spark new ways to analyse and interpret scans, with potential benefits for research as well as for the investigation of patients in the future.

The availability of so much imaging data will help put the findings from smaller but important imaging studies already undertaken in context. “Researchers can now test ideas quickly, armed with no more than a good idea, appropriate software and access to the necessary computational resource,” said Professor Matthews.

For the last ten years UK Biobank has gathered huge quantities of data on its 500,000 participants – including their lifestyle, weight, height, diet, physical activity and cognitive function, as well as genetic data from blood samples. Linkage to a wide range of health records is also under way, including data from general practices.

Life Sciences Minister George Freeman MP said: “Stunning advances in imaging and informatics are opening up new ways to diagnose, treat and potentially prevent diseases like dementia, heart disease and cancer. Our £20 million investment in this – the world’s biggest collection of imaging data – is helping make the UK a world leader in 21stcentury life science.”