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UK Biobank gives hard-up researchers free access to data

Image: Westend61, via Getty Images

Donor-funded scheme aims to redress geographic imbalance in usage of huge biomedical resource

The world’s largest biomedical database will offer researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) free access through a donor-funded scheme launched this week.

The UK Biobank Global Researcher Access Fund, backed by companies that include AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson, will pay the application costs normally levied for accessing the biobank’s data.

UK Biobank holds de-identified genetic and health data from 500,000 UK participants and is accessible to scientists all over the world. However, in the past 12 years only about 50 projects have been conducted on the data by scientists from low- and middle-income countries.

The new fund could triple that number, says the biobank’s head of research development Lauren Carson. The fund currently has between US$70,000 and US$90,000 at its disposal, although more donations are coming all the time, Carson says. “It’s a fantastic initiative in my view.”

Cost barrier

The biobank charges UK-based researchers a fee of £9000 plus VAT for three-year access to its data. This was reduced to £500 plus VAT for LMIC researchers to improve access.

However, feedback received by the biobank showed that many still found the cost too high. To address this, the new fund will cover the reduced fee for bona fide researchers undertaking biomedical research for public benefit.

The fund provides so-called Tier 3 access, which is the highest access tier to the biobank’s data, and includes whole genome sequencing data, whole exome sequencing data and full-body scan imaging data.

Applications for support from the fund can be done on the same platform as regular applications for access, the biobank explains on its website.

Democratising data

A handful of projects have already received support from the fund, Carson says. She adds that more funders are being approached to contribute to the initiative, and that the biobank is also looking at ways to offer training for LMIC researchers. 

“We will be going and speaking to other companies and also other funding bodies, such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, in future to see if they [would] be interested in collaborating in this fund as well,” she says.

One of the fund’s early beneficiaries is Abhishek Appaji, a biomedical engineer based at the BMS College of Engineering Bengaluru in India.

Appaji will use UK Biobank data to look at how psychiatric disorders can be better diagnosed and monitored. He says he hopes this will boost his research productivity, and urges others to take advantage of the fund to conduct high-impact, locally relevant research.

“When I did my PhD, I was keen on having access to something like this. Now six or seven years later, I have it,” he told Research Professional News.