Increasing numbers of researchers in the Netherlands and abroad are applying to use data and biomaterial from the LifeLines biobank for research into active and healthy ageing. In 2014, 50 requests were received, 36 of which were from the UMCG and the University of Groningen, seven from other parts of the Netherlands and seven from abroad. In 2015, new studies began into gut health, COPD, CT scans and a birth cohort.
‘Impressive numbers’, says Saakje Mulder, the new director of the Groningen biobank. Its success does not surprise her. ‘LifeLines is the first cohort study in the Netherlands that includes all aspects of life, from heredity and lifestyle to psychological and social factors. It now is the largest infrastructure to perform scientific population-based studies in the Netherlands with an estimated size of 167.000 individuals which will be followed-up for 30 years. This interdisciplinary research opportunities make our biobank attractive for scientific research.’
LifeLines offers a unique data resource for scientific use to study a broad scope of (epi)genetic, biomedical, environmental and psychosocial factors in relation to healthy ageing, disease development, and general well being. Cardiologists from the UMCG made use of the biobank in their research into the role of gut bacteria in cardiovascular disease. People who are exposed to pesticides at work, such as famers and growers, are at higher risk of developing COPD, a chronic and irreversible narrowing of the airways. Scientific research has revealed a relationship between reduced lung function and exposure to cigarette smoke and noxious fumes, substances or gases at work. The data and biomaterials used in the research came from the Groningen biobank.
Data and biomaterial from the LifeLines participants are stored in the LifeStore. LifeStore opened at the end of January, attracting the attention of the national media. LifeStore is a fully automated freezer facility the size of a small sports hall that stores about eight million aliquots (small tubes) of biomaterials taken from the LifeLines participants. It stores these at a temperature of -80 degrees. The aim of the research is to gain more clarity about healthy ageing. Researchers can gain access to data and biomaterial by submitting a specific research question. LifeLines anonymizes data and biomaterials and provides it for scientific research, stating only the participant’s sex and age. The researcher signs a contract, and the data for the research is anonymized and placed in a secure work environment to which the researcher is given temporary access with a login code. The LifeLines Research Office considers applications for data and materials and provides them if the application proves successful.
Research using LifeLines data and biomaterial has led to more than 100 articles in scientific journals over the last 10 years. ‘These too are numbers to be proud of’, says Mulder. ‘They show that we are on the right path, although we still have some way to go.’ Because there is still much ground to be gained, starting in Groningen itself. Mulder, an epidemiologist herself, says that in our own University environment relatively little use is made of the opportunities presented by the biobank, ‘Perhaps because people think that LifeLines is linked to the Health & Life Sciences sector. But it has so much more to offer.’
Research into the experience of stress in the northern earthquake zone, for instance. Or to what extent the earthquake issues cause sleep problems in men and women between the age of 40 and 50 living in Loppersum, for example, Mulder says, ‘What is unique about our data selection system is that we can select the LifeLines participants by district.’ And it cannot be the cost that deters people says Mulder. ‘We charge EUR 7500 per research proposal to require access to data. This does not even dent the budget.’
LifeLines no longer accepts new participants. The selected group of 167,000 participants is the fixed group that will be regularly screened over the next 30 years. Mulder says, ‘We are considering including any children born to the current selection of LifeLines participants in the population study – in heredity and birth studies.’
The biggest challenge for the new director is securing funding after 2017 for this large-scale epidemiological study. Mulder is optimistic. ‘ The money for the basic infrastructure should come from governments and of the appliers to use data and biomaterial from the LifeLines biobank . But you could also consider marketing the available data to researchers or the private sector for a fee. LifeLines participants would then not only contribute to fundamental research but would also receive a fee for their participation.’
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