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UK Biobank launches world's largest imaging project to shed new light on major diseases

14 Apr 2016

The world’s largest health imaging study, funded by the MRC, Wellcome Trust, and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) is launched today. It will create the biggest collection of scans of internal organs, and 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 visionary project set up in 2006 by the MRC & Wellcome Trust to create a research resource of half a million people across the UK to improve health.

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 novel ways to analyse and interpret scans, with potential benefits for research as well as for the investigation of patients in the future.   

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.

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 during follow-up for many years to come.”

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.”


Tackling brain conditions

This large scale study will improve researchers’ understanding of what happens in the brain before dementia, stroke and other neurological disorders are diagnosed. This could result in the development of new treatments or preventative measures. Researchers will be better able to find how conditions that affect the brain such as depression, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease are affected by our genes, environments and lifestyles. 

The availability of so much imaging data from the largest brain study ever conducted will help put the findings from smaller but important imaging studies already undertaken in context. The addition of genetic data and the analyses of blood samples and data collected from lifestyle questionnaires will further strengthen the resource.

Preventing broken bones and fractures

It is hoped that the study will help prevent the huge burden of broken bones resulting from osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), a significant public health issue which costs the UK economy more than £3 billion a year. This presents an 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).

Insights into cardiovascular disease

The imaging study will offer real insight into the heart itself on a scale never seen before. This will act as a resource for researchers both in the UK and overseas. The scans will allow researchers to investigate heart health in greater detail than has previously been possible. This study could not only help prevent and treat heart disease in the future but make current MRI techniques for scanning the heart faster and more effective.

Learning about fat distribution

The MRI scan will also provide key information on the amount and distribution of fat and muscle mass. Combining these data with information about lifestyle, genetics and markers in the blood (like hormones, sugar and cholesterol) will hugely strengthen UK Biobank for studies into obesity and diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and some cancers and other medical complications. With increasing evidence to suggest that fat distribution, rather than amount of fat, is important for determining an individual’s risk of future disease, abdominal MRI provides an exciting opportunity to examine the predictive importance of particular fat depots (visceral, liver and pancreas) and the relative distribution of fat for the development of disease. ​

How the study will be run

An initial study of 8,000 participants, funded by the MRC, was 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. Imaging will include:

  • MRI assessment of heart chamber diameter, the volume of blood flow, and how the heart changes as it pumps blood around the body, thickness of the heart wall and the size, shape and stiffness of the thoracic aorta, the vessel that delivers blood from the heart
  • MRI measures of brain structure and function, volumes of grey matter and the mapping of major brain connections
  • Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry measures of bone density, osteoarthritic change at spine, hip and knee, fractures in the spine, and fat distribution throughout the body
  • MRI measures of abdominal fat volume including in the liver and pancreas
  • Ultrasound assessment of two major arteries, the carotid arteries, that run either side of the neck to the brain

Recruitment will continue in the north west of England, and will roll out to the south (Reading) and the north (Newcastle) over the coming year.

Image credit: AMRA and Fidel Alfaro Almagro, University of Oxford.​


  • Categories: Funding
  • Health categories: Cancer, Cardiovascular, Metabolic, Musculoskeletal, Neurological, Stroke
  • Locations: Manchester, Other
  • Type: News article