Millions invited to take part in UK scheme to diagnose diseases earlier


A project to diagnose and treat diseases early – or even prevent them from developing – has been launched in the UK, with 3 million people to be invited to take part this autumn.

The project, called Our Future Health, will eventually recruit 5 million or more people from all walks of life, with participants sharing their health records and giving blood samples, as well as having their weight, blood pressure and cholesterol measured, and their DNA analysed.

Prof Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, who is chairing the project, said healthcare systems tended to be geared towards treating people once they developed symptoms and often in the last stages of a disease.

But he noted that with new tools, including those based on genetics, it was possible to detect a chronic disease early or identify people at higher risk of a condition before it developed, meaning interventions could be made sooner.

The principle, he said, applied for conditions ranging from obesity to cancer and mental health.

“[The ambition] is to try and create a sandbox for testing and evaluating these early diagnostic or prevention strategies across a large population of people,” said Bell. “And we’ll be able to use that population to help us evaluate these new tools, diagnose disease early, prevent disease more effectively, and intervene at an earlier stage.”

Dr Raghib Ali, the chief medical officer of the project, said: “We’ve known this for a long time, that if we can intervene earlier by detecting disease earlier that will produce much better outcomes for our patients.”

Ali added that the approach would also save the NHS money. “Most of the costs of care is in the final stages of disease,” he said.

Backed by the government, life sciences industry, the NHS and charities including Alzheimer’s Society, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, the scheme is expected to build on the success of research resources such as the UK Biobank to become the UK’s largest health research programme.

However, the team said its project went further, not only in recruiting a far larger pool of participants but also ensuring they came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities.

All adults are eligible to join Our Future Health, whatever their age, while the project will also offer participants the chance to receive feedback on their risks of various diseases – initially focused on diabetes and heart disease. The team said it subsequently hoped to offer participants at risk of particular conditions the option to join screening programmes or further research.

“In order to start to evaluate interventions, you’ve got to have enough people in the study at high risk with a disease you can do that with – but as soon as we get there, we will be trying new interventions,” said Bell, noting that among areas causing interest is the use of immunological therapies for treating very early stage cancer.

While invitations to join the project are initially being sent to adults in West Yorkshire, West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Greater London, the team said anyone could sign up to participate.

The team said patient data would be de-identified before it was used and that consent would be sought from participants at different stages of the project.

While about £80m in funding from the UK government, plus £160m from life sciences companies, is in place to recruit and gather initial data for up to 5 million participants, Bell said the ambition was to recruit even more people.

“We see this as a 10- to 20-year project,” he said, adding that the project, and its sustainability, was important. “If we don’t do this the NHS and the healthcare system is going to collapse under the weight of late stage disease.”

Source: Nicola Davis, Science correspondent, Yahoo Life UK

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