For a long time, one of the biggest challenges facing medical science was ‘how do you manage the vast amount of patient data collected in hospitals, surgeries and research institutions’?

It felt like the answers to big questions could be lying somewhere in information already gathered if only researchers knew where to look for it. One of the answers to the problem is biobanking, which is fast becoming one of the most important tools in the armoury of health researchers working to find new treatments for diseases. The industry has developed to provide research teams with the raw materials they need when investigating patterns in human health and it is a growing sector, according to a new report by business analysts Visiongain. Their researchers concluded that biostorage systems form an important resource that supports fields including genomics and personalised medicine, letting companies store and use samples such as stem cells.

Visiongain’s study predicts that the world biobanking market will generate $27.5bn in 2020 as rising demand for samples for use by pharmaceutical companies in preclinical research grows. In a powerful example of the potential, the world’s largest health imaging study, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust, and the British Heart Foundation (BHF), has been launched. It will create the biggest collection of scans of internal organs and those behind the initiative say it 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 thousands of current participants of UK Biobank, a project set up in 2006 by the MRC and Wellcome Trust to create a research resource of half a million people across the UK to improve health. The scans will provide data for all health scientists to access. For the past ten years UK Biobank has gathered data on 500,000 participants – including their lifestyle, weight, height, diet, physical activity and cognitive function, as well as genetic data from blood samples. Creating links to a wide range of health records is also under way, including data from general practices. Cathie Sudlow, Professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and UK Biobank’s Chief Scientist, said: “This very large number of participants involved in the multimodal imaging study is impressive enough but 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, for many years to come.”

UK 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.” For Professor Paul Matthews, Head of the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, the samples will offer invaluable help for scientists investigating dementia. Prof Matthews, who chairs the group of academic experts who have been supporting UK Biobank, 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 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.” His views are echoed by Professor Stephen Smith, of the Oxford University Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, who leads the brain imaging component of the study.

He said: “UK Biobank will be by far the largest brain imaging study ever conducted. It will not only provide valuable insight into common conditions like dementia, but also capture early markers of more rare neurological disorders like motor neuron disease. We aim to discover new early signs and risk factors of disease, in the hope that earlier targeted treatment, or changes in lifestyle, could prevent major diseases from ever happening.” One of the other areas in which biobanking will provide invaluable is research into conditions that affect bone strength. Nicholas Harvey, Professor of Rheumatology and Clinical Epidemiology at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, at the University of Southampton, leads the musculoskeletal component. Prof Harvey said he hoped that the study will help prevent the huge number of broken bones resulting from osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), which costs the UK economy more than £3 billion a year.

He said: “The really exciting thing about these imaging data is that we will have the opportunity to study bone mass and determinants of osteoporosis in relation to other common chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, hypertension, dementia, and sarcopenia (muscle loss). This is a unique research opportunity and promises to deliver ground breaking scientific information.” Biobanking samples also cast new light on heart conditions, according to Professor Steffen Petersen, of Barts Heart Centre and Queen Mary University of London, who led the development of the heart imaging protocol. He said: “This imaging study offers us real insight into the heart itself on a scale hitherto impossible to imagine. This is a fantastic resource for researchers both in the UK and overseas. I know many who can’t wait to see the data and start using it to improve health.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, which funded the pilot project of the heart imaging protocol, said: “These scans will allow researchers to investigate heart health in greater detail than has ever been done before. This study could not only help us to better prevent and treat heart disease in the future but make current MRI techniques for scanning the heart faster and more effective. Improving diagnosis of heart disease will save lives by driving earlier and more targeted treatment to prevent heart attacks.” To drive forward the programme, an initial study of 8,000 participants has just been completed at a purpose-built scanning facility at UK Biobank’s headquarters in Stockport, which is now being used for the main study.  The people scanned do not receive any feedback about their health, unless potentially serious abnormalities are spotted during the imaging.