A contemporary history of the origins and development of UK Biobank, 1998-2005

Langan, Mairi A (2008) A contemporary history of the origins and development of UK Biobank, 1998-2005. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Background: This thesis examines the origins and early development of UK Biobank. This is a resource funded in 2002 by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive to gather genetic and lifestyle information from half a million participants aged 4069 years old in the UK and monitor their health for up to thirty years in order to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of major diseases. UK Biobank was set up following the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2001, and was one of many established at around the same time with the goal of translating the knowledge of the human genome sequence into practical benefits for human health. (National genetic databases were also set up or proposed in Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, Singapore, Tonga, Spain, and the United States). They, and the Human Genome Project, had raised a number of important issues about access to and ownership of genetic information.

Aims: The original aim of my PhD was to examine lay and professional understandings and responses to Biobank in the light of this background. However, UK Biobank took longer than expected to reach the stage of data collection, in part because of negotiations about its organisational structure. The aim therefore changed to address the question of how and why was UK Biobank initially configured in the manner it was.

Organisational structure: UK Biobank was originally set up by the funders with a ‘hub’ and ‘spoke’ model, with calls for bids from UK Universities for a central ‘hub’ charged with financial management and overall control of data and samples, and ‘spokes’ who were responsible for recruitment and data collection through primary care. The selection of both was made through the procurement rules of the EU. The hub (Manchester), six regional spokes, and the CEO (from Oxford) were all appointed simultaneously in 2003 and subsequently a Board of Directors and a number of committees were appointed. The CEO resigned in late 2004, and a new CEO and Principal Investigator was appointed in 2005, after which there were significant changes to the organisational structure.

Methods: I conducted 76 oral history interviews with academic scientists directly and indirectly involved in UK Biobank, representatives of all four funding bodies, and representatives of UK Biobank Limited (the company set up to manage UK Biobank). I also conducted archival analysis of the MRC’s official documents concerning the origins and development of UK Biobank.

Findings: From its beginning UK Biobank was marked by tension between academic scientists on the one hand and representatives of the funding bodies and UK Biobank Limited on the other. Academic scientists criticised the funding bodies for establishing UK Biobank in a way that departed from what I have termed ‘standard academic scientific practice’. Spokes felt they should receive some privileged access to data they would contribute to collecting, and felt that the set up did not recognise the performance indicators driving scientists and universities. Lack of clarity over who was in control of UK Biobank contributed to these tensions as both spokes and funders felt that the other exerted undue influence. Some mistrust developed between academic scientists and representatives of the funding bodies and UK Biobank Limited.

Discussion: The configuration of UK Biobank was difficult for academic scientists and representatives of both the funding bodies and UK Biobank alike. Organisational issues, typical of those confronting Big Science initiatives, were largely responsible for this difficult legacy. Issues of leadership, the hub and spoke model, the sequencing of funding decisions, appointment of groups and committees and protocol development, uncertainties about who was in control, and ambiguities within the organisational structure as a whole were the most significant issues in the origins and development of UK Biobank, as the organisational changes in 2005 testify.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: Q Science > QH Natural history > QH301 Biology
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Health & Wellbeing
Supervisor's Name: Macintyre, Professor Sally, Hunt, Professor Kate and Dupree, Dr Marguerite
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Ms Mairi A Langan
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-104
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 15 Feb 2008
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:15
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/104

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