After many years of data collection, UK Biobank is now open for research on human health and disease.

Like the Swedish biobank investment LifeGene, the British investment is big and prospective. Blood and urine samples were collected from 500 000 participants aged 40-69. Participants also underwent medical examinations and answered questions about health, disease and lifestyle.

The news is that researchers can now start planning projects using these data. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long time before interesting findings are reported…

It may seem cynical, but before UK Biobank can support valuable research, sufficiently many participants must develop various diseases, while others remain healthy. This is what will allow researchers to go back to the original data and identify patterns in how genetic and environmental factors contribute to health and disease.

The value of biobank infrastructure, like UK Biobank, increases with time, as participants develop cancer, depression, diabetes, or heart disease… while others remain in good health.

The fact that biobank infrastructure initially has unclear scientific value and reveals its potential only with time tends to invite skepticism. In the UK as well as in Sweden, investments in biobank infrastructure were interpreted by some as if they concerned unusually obscure research projects, lacking proper scientific goals and procedures.

I think that this is a misunderstanding.

As the recent opening of UK Biobank shows, it is not until now that clearly defined research projects can start being planned. If I am right, however, we might even have to wait somewhat longer…

The data collected between 2006 and 2012 might not support much interesting research until 2022, if I understand the temporality of these research processes. Since the research concerns health and disease in ageing humans, the significance of the research cannot develop any faster than humans grow older.

Rather than holding the initial lack of scientific prosperity against investments like UK Biobank or LifeGene, I am struck by the patience and foresightedness of those who planned and decided about these investments.

Understanding the infrastructural preconditions of biobank research seems to require an attitude to the pace of human life that I thought had become extinct in an age obsessed with short-term agendas.

Sometimes, we have to wait for the future to reveal itself. Only when the time is ripe can the goals and procedures of scientifically interesting biobank projects be defined.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog