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Impact story

Impact of MRC funded cohorts

4 Dec 2017

This case study forms part of our Investing for Impact report, looking at how MRC- funded research delivers impact. More can be found in the Investing for Impact section of our website.

The UK has a strong background in epidemiology and public health research. One of the most robust sources of data for this area of research comes from the MRC’s unparalleled collection of large scale population cohort studies. These provide a wealth of longitudinal phenotypic, biological, and social data for studying health and wellbeing throughout the life course. A few key achievements from cohorts funded by the MRC are highlighted below:

Scientists discover link between a baby’s birth weight and diseases later in life (ALSPAC cohort)

In 2016, data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) cohort was used to show how genetic differences provide an important link between the biology that affects a person’s early growth and their chances of developing adult diseases later in life. Babies who weigh well below or well above the average when they are born have a greater risk of developing diabetes later in life. This important work could help to target new ways of preventing and treating these diseases. Based at the University of Bristol, the ALSPAC cohort, also known as Children of the 90s, is a world-leading birth cohort study. Over the years it has had several high-profile impacts on public health policy. For example, ALSPAC data showed that eating oily fish during pregnancy was associated with better eye and cognitive development in children. Another study helped to cement advice that babies should be put to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of cot death, by showing that this sleeping position did not cause any developmental delays. Now the ALSPAC cohort is coming of age and scientists are able to study correlations with adult diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Award details: G9815508

Research shows that pregnancy vitamin D supplementation may help winter baby’s bones (MAVIDOS cohort)

In 2016, scientists from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton showed that vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy may lead to stronger bones in babies born during the winter months. The Maternal Vitamin D Osteoporosis Study (MAVIDOS) study, consisting of about 1,000 pregnant women across Southampton, Oxford and Sheffield, is a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of vitamin D supplements in pregnancy. Sunlight is our most important source of vitamin D, and mothers’ levels of vitamin D tend to drop from summer to winter. Babies’ bones strengthen during the last stages of pregnancy, and therefore babies born in the winter months tend to have lower bone density than those born during the summer. Pregnant women are already advised to take vitamin D supplements. The MAVIDOS study has provided the first evidence that supplementing mothers with vitamin D during pregnancy counteracts the seasonal drop in maternal vitamin D levels and may help to ensure good bone development in these winter births.

Award details: MC_UP_A620_1014, MC_UU_12011/1

MRI scans can help around a quarter of men avoid prostate biopsy (PROMIS trial)

In January 2017, a trial led by the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL found that using an MRI scan to decide which men need a prostate biopsy allowed doctors to identify around a quarter of men who can safely avoid the painful procedure. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the UK. The PROMIS trial tested whether an MRI scan before a biopsy could identify men who might safely avoid a biopsy. The results showed that having an MRI scan, followed by a biopsy if the scan is positive, can dramatically improve the diagnosis of prostate cancer. In addition, the results showed that combining MRI with biopsy could improve the detection of aggressive prostate cancers, reducing the need for repeat biopsies.

Award details: MC_U122861330


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Cancer, Cardiovascular, Musculoskeletal, Reproduction
  • Locations: Bristol, London, Southampton
  • Type: Impact story, Success story