Largest Ever Study Hunts Secrets of Aging and Longevity Health

World’s largest whole-body scanning study begins exciting second stage to re-scan 60,000 UK Biobank volunteers

“The repeat imaging of thousands of volunteers will enable researchers to see subtle changes in the body that develop over the years – these may give early warning of conditions like heart disease and dementia long before there are any symptoms. UK Biobank is largely an unsung British success story…I feel really privileged to be part of UK Biobank.”

Fergus Walsh, BBC’s Medical Editor

Scientists will use images from the world’s largest whole-body scanning study to see how people’s brains, hearts, abdomens and bones have aged and accelerate research into the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of our major diseases.

Since 2014, UK Biobank has collected vast amounts of body-scanning data using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, X-ray and dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), with the aim of imaging 100,000 participants.

Now 60,000 people are returning to have their second scan so that scientists can see the changes that have taken place since their initial scans were taken 2-7 years previously, including BBC’s Medical Editor Fergus Walsh. These comparisons are vital for assessing diseases that tend to develop later in life, such as cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases.

Scientists can cross-reference the imaging data with existing health and genetic data in UK Biobank to understand the mechanisms by which diseases change over time. In the case of dementia, seeing how changes to the brain’s structure and function affect the risk of disease could enable pre-symptomatic diagnoses that lead to earlier therapeutic interventions.

Participants undergo five hours of scans to collect the data, with different areas of the body imaged at the same time. UK Biobank’s imaging study includes MRI scans of the brain, heart and abdomen, along with DEXA measures of bone density and ultrasound scans of carotid arteries.

These unique data, unmatched on this scale or comprehensiveness, will be made available to approved researchers around the world, facilitating invaluable collaborative research comparing baseline and repeat-imaging data. The study has already led to the development of methods that can predict a person’s genetic risk of developing a wide range of conditions.

UK Biobank’s imaging study is the result of a collaboration between the government-funded Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome, British Heart Foundation and Dementias Platform UK. Additional funding to re-scan 60,000 participants is being provided by the MRC, Calico and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

“Most large studies typically scan just a single body part of a few thousand people, so this project is truly unique…not only are we working on a vastly bigger scale, but we record images of multiple parts of each person’s body, so you can study the whole person and see how it all relates.”

Professor Sir Rory Collins, Chief Executive and Principal Investigator of UK Biobank

“Already, there are over 7,000 publications based on the data that we have at the moment…one of the really important research aspects that’s coming out of the resource is how, by looking at the genetic profile of all half a million participants – including Fergus – researchers can now predict the genetic predisposition of developing a wide range of common diseases. Once you know that, you can look at prevention and screening for disease.”

Professor Naomi Allen, Chief Scientist, UK Biobank

“UK Biobank’s biomedical database is already the most comprehensive database in the world for scientific and health related research. The collection of a repeat set of whole-body scans on such a large scale will enable many more fundamental discoveries, better understanding of early disease stages and their diagnosis, and support the development of new treatments for diseases of mid-to-later life. We are grateful to the MRC, Calico and CZI for their generous funding of this project and to the incredible UK Biobank participants without whose dedication and altruism we would not be able to conduct this ambitious study.”

Professor Paul Matthews, Chair of the UK Biobank Imaging Working Group, and Head of the Department of Brain Sciences and UK Dementia Research Institute Centre at Imperial College London

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