5m volunteers sought for UK’s largest ever health research project

By tracking people throughout their lives, researchers hope to figure out who is likely to get ill even before they have symptoms.

A doctor checks a patient's blood pressure
A doctor checks a patient's blood pressure

Five million Britons are to be recruited to join a major health study which aims to predict who will get ill in their later years even before they show symptoms.

Hoped to be the UK’s largest ever health research programme, Our Future Health will track people throughout their lives in a bid to come up with new ways to prevent, detect and treat diseases such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Experts said the coronavirus pandemic has meant that people are more tuned in to the importance of clinical research and the programme will start to recruit volunteers over the age of 18 in the spring.

Dr Andrew Roddam, chief executive of the project, said participants could help shape the care for future generations by providing health data about themselves.

He told the PA news agency: “Our Future Health started out because we know that people spend a lot of their later life in relatively poor health and, despite everything that we’ve seen in the advances in medicines around dementias, cancers, heart disease, strokes and other things, we still know people live that sort of latter part of it in quite an unhealthy state.”

Estimates suggest that 59% of those aged 65 or older in the UK have two or more serious health conditions but this is expected to rise to around 70% by 2035.

Dr Roddam added: “Our Future Health is a new research programme really designed to help researchers take advantage of some of the different ways of thinking about preventing, detecting and treating diseases.

“What we’re aiming to do over the next few years is to build a community of five million volunteers, people over the age of 18, who are willing to share information about themselves, provide blood samples, complete questionnaires and be given the option ultimately to get some feedback about their health by taking part in the research.

“We want to do this across the UK, recruiting every type of person that we can find, covering all of the ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds, all of the regions and areas in the country.

“So that really what we get to is information and knowledge about people that will ultimately give us new insights into ways of finding disease earlier and intervening earlier on to give them those better, higher quality years of life later on in life.”

By having such a large pool of participants researchers hope to be able to paint a picture of people’s health before they become ill and as they are diagnosed.

In turn, this will help them spot signs of illness and pinpoint interventions.

“So you don’t always wait until the late diagnosis – you’re getting in early, you’re able to sort of prevent that progression, or at least slow it down in individuals to allow them to live healthier lives for longer in the future,” said Dr Roddam.

He added that, due to the pandemic, people are “much more appreciative of the value of kind of collaboration and being able to share information about themselves to advance how we develop treatments, vaccines, information”.

Professor Sir John Bell, chairman of Our Future Health, said: “Progress in tackling the growing burden of chronic disease depends on strong collaboration across the life sciences sector and health system.

“We’ve certainly seen how powerful it is during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the rapid development and deployment of vaccines, diagnostic tools and treatments into the NHS at unprecedented speed and scale.

“Our Future Health is designed to harness the power of collaboration. The combination of support from industry and charities that we’re announcing today, alongside our existing funding from the Government, means we’re on track to build Our Future Health into a world-leading health research programme.

“Hopefully it will lay the ground for a bold new approach to healthcare in the NHS, focused on early detection and prevention of disease.”

The project, which is is primarily funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and in partnership with the NHS, has been endorsed by 16 major health charities.

It has so far raised £100 million of £160 million needed.

A spokeswoman for the project said data shared by participants will be “de-identified” and held in “trusted research environments”.

Dr Roddam added: “We recognise that this is one of the most precious things that we’re asking people to share about themselves – information about their health and what’s happening to them is really very personal information – and we treat that with the highest levels of protection and respect.”

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