LONDON--A three-year, £700 million science budget increase, made largely to support biomolecular and biomedical research, will also fund the creation of a national DNA database here. The plan was announced last month by Peter Mandelson, UK secretary of state for trade and industry.
Mandelson called the higher budget "solid evidence" of the government's determination to reverse the recent decline in spending for science, and reports stated that funding was intended to keep the UK competitive in human and other genomic research.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) was allocated £334 million for 2001-02, the largest increase in funding among all research councils here. Of that amount, approximately £12 million was earmarked to create the DNA database.
The database will be designed to map the genetic landscape of the UK population and to build on UK strengths in epidemiology and large-cohort studies. The database will include information to help identify both genes that increase the risk of disease and those that protect against common complex diseases. It will also aim to show how the environment interacts with genetic makeup to affect health. Lifestyle information obtained by questionnaires and blood samples will be analyzed to reveal the effects of chemicals and other environmental factors on health. Information on how genes can affect an individual's response to treatment will assist in targeting therapies.
David Porteous, head of molecular genetics at the Medical Research Council Centre for Human Genetics in Edinburgh, compared the money for the new database to the £11 million originally made available for the UK Human Genome Project. "In the same way, this money will be used to establish a facilitatory infrastructure that will catalyze the development of the database. It will support projects to optimize collection, storage, and analysis of samples bringing maximum benefit for individual collaborators," he remarked.
Porteous predicted developments in three main areas: genetic analysis of samples already collected in cohort studies; evaluations of new technologies to determine sequence variation, such as DNA chip technology; and new studies that will be defined by the quality of information already available.
"The collections will be developed in partnership with others with an interest and role in this work, for example the cancer charities the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Cancer Research Campaign and the Wellcome Trust," said Porteous.
The cohort studies that are the foundation of the database will each consist of 10,000 people. They may include both the Whitehall Study that investigated cardiovascular disease in civil servants and other investigations into lifestyle factors in relation to chronic disease, which have been carried out in Cambridge and Oxford. Contributions from several other individual collaborators will also be included.
MRC has already established a working party, under the leadership of George Radda, the council's chief executive, to tackle the considerable ethical and practical problems to overcome in establishing the collections. High on the agenda is the issue of permission from individuals who have participated in studies to use their genetic information. As Porteous explained, "Where consent is not already granted this must be sought retrospectively, after appropriate counseling. In some cases, although it may already have been granted, this could have been in advance of the discovery of other candidate genes of interest, and so it must be modified accordingly."
Problems of a more practical nature were outlined by Nick Day, head of MRC's biostatistics unit at the Institute of Public Health in Cambridge. "A major challenge will be to evolve a framework that will satisfy the differing interests of the collaborators," he said. "Many people, for example, may have had difficulty for years in scraping enough funds together to keep their projects afloat, and now they are asked to share their data."
The payback, explained Day, will be access to the high-throughput technology that will characterize the national project. "People will no doubt see the advantage of combining with a larger enterprise when they are able far more easily to realize the results of all their hard work," he observed.