My day as a lab rat

On Friday, I headed for an anonymous tower block in Croydon, where I spent a morning giving blood samples, cycling on an exercise bike while hooked up to an ECG, spitting into a jar, being weighed, measured and having my reactions and memory tested. Why? All in the name of science.

As I spend so much time writing about medical research studies, I was completely unable to resist the opportunity to take part in one. And not just any old one. The UK Biobank project is one of the biggest ongoing research studies in the world.

It aims to recruit over a million UK citizens, across the whole spectrum, to gather an enormous amount of data. This huge dataset will then be used as a fantastic resource for researchers in years to come, answering key questions about the interplay between nature and nurture. In other words, how much of your health is down to your environment and lifestyle, and how much to your genetic inheritance? I was one of the many people to receive an invitation to take part.

I did think twice before accepting. I do have concerns about data protection and privacy. I’ve agreed that not only my medical records, but my DNA samples, can be used by anyone given permission to carry out the research. Of course, that will be on an anonymised basis. But human error always happens, and I’m aware no set of data is 100 percent secure.

I decided to go with my instincts (and curiosity) by agreeing to take part. We all benefit from good quality medical research, and the studies I enjoy dissecting for my living wouldn’t happen if everyone decided to be precious about their privacy.

So what will these lucky researchers find out about me?   So far, that my lung function, body mass index, intra-ocular eye pressure, bone density and blood pressure are fine. Phew. They’ll know more than I do about my cholesterol level, my DNA profile, my hearing and intelligence.

They’ll probably know less than me about my diet and exercise. I filled in all the questionnaires, but honestly, can you say how many portions of fruit you ate last week? Or swear to how much time you spent doing moderately vigorous activity? Was that biscuit yesterday, or the day before? Do I count walking to work, or is that already covered in my commuting information?

I’ll be a little more suspicious next time I look at a study which relies on people filling in dietary questionnaires, or estimating how much exercise they do. Not only is it hard to remember, it’s so tempting to ‘improve’ your answers a little. Go on, be honest, do you round up or down your alcohol units when the doctor asks?

But I do support the overall aims of the project, and wish the researchers well. Maybe, come my decreptitude, I’ll be offered a memory-saving drug that was developed with help from the UK Biobank project. Maybe it’ll even help me remember what I ate yesterday.

Image: The Mouse from Darney’s photostream at Flickr.com with CCL.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve received a comment on this post by Adam Jacobs, who is concerned that I have been misled about the confidentiality of the data. I’m not posting his comment because of legal concerns. Adam Jacobs’ own blog post on the subject is here: http://dianthus.co.uk/uk-biobank. Information about confidentiality is posted on the Biobank site here: http://www.ukbiobank.ac.uk/faqs/confidentiality.php. For the record, I am happy with the assurance that the data results will be held separately from my personal identifiers. The data would be little use to anyone, were there no means of linking it to my medical records in future. I don’t feel I was misled. I encourage anyone considering taking part to read the information and ask questions, until they are personally happy with the risks.

  2. I got the letter inviting me to participate in this too. The main thing that put me off was that it was in Croydon! It would have taken a long time, and Im too busy at the moment. My husband also got the invitation and couldnt spare the time.
    I wonder what sort of ‘cross section’ they will get?
    Self employed, OAPs, unemployed, people not ashamed by their bodies and lifestyle.
    You have an altruistic attitude and are not worried about data confidentiality. That is admirable. But lots of people are not like you, so I wonder if ‘across the spectrum’ is possible?

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