Patients across Britain with cancer, heart and other common diseases have been providing blood samples for research since 2000. They are part of a project hosted by The University of Manchester that will allow more researchers than ever before to study genes in chronic diseases. The project - called the UK DNA Banking Network - was initiated in 1999 as a scientific infrastructure with government funding via the Medical Research Council.
"The infrastructure is already up and running for handling patient samples. Now what we've done is to create a sort of scientists' dating agency and shop," explains the Director of the Network's archive, Dr Martin Yuille (University of Manchester). "Vetted scientists can find on the website both data and materials about a disease. Then, they can 'date' a collaborator, design an experiment together and make an online wish list of patients' DNAs that they need."
The DNA Network provides web access by registered researchers to detailed summaries of data on patients whose anonymity is assured. The researchers hone their hypotheses in collaboration with the clinicians who are the custodians of the samples provided by patients. The new collaborators then request top quality research materials from the DNA Network's archive.
"The significance of this development is that it builds on the success of the Human Genome Project. This discovered all our genes - and revealed that biologists now need serious logistics for this type of research," says Dr Yuille. "The UK DNA Banking Network is leading the world in providing a sample and data infrastructure to tackle the challenge of uncovering the genetic pathways of complex disease."
Dr Kate Dixon, who manages the archive at the Centre for Integrated Genomic Medical Research (CIGMR ) at The University of Manchester, adds: "The archive manages tens of thousands of samples for a dozen diseases. Now we are using the internet to sort out the logistics of distribution."
Simon Pullum, the chief executive of Azura Group, a technology consultancy in Essex used by the DNA Network, says: "The software is designed to be compatible with any database architecture. This will help the scientists bring in more collaborators and more data types."
The website is at www.dna-network.ac.uk.
The UK clinicians in the Network are experts in gut, breast and white blood cell cancers, heart attacks and high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, old age blindness, childhood asthma and eczema. The clinicians leading each national disease collection are based in London, Exeter, Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Samples and data are managed at a robotic archive in the University of Manchester and in the Health Protection Agency's European Collection of Cell Cultures labs in Salisbury.