LONDON (Reuters) - British researchers are to tap into the world's biggest and most detailed biomedical database to try and work out why smoking harms the lungs of some people more than others.
The Medical Research Council said on Wednesday the study would be the largest ever into the genetics of lung disease.
It is an early example of how the UK Biobank, which holds information on 500,000 middle-aged Britons, is being put to work to better understand common diseases.
The study will use anonymous data from 50,000 biobank participants - all of whom had their lung function tested, gave details on smoking and had blood samples taken - to determine genetic variants associated with susceptibility to lung disease.
The main focus is on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which affects around 900,000 people in Britain and costs the state health service an estimated 500 million pounds a year.
GlaxoSmithKline's inhaled drug Advair or Seretide is currently the leading treatment for COPD, although others are in development from rival companies.
"We currently know very little about why there is such a wide difference in lung health even among smokers," said lead researcher Ian Hall of Nottingham Medical School.
"It may have something to do with genetics, so we're extremely excited about using the unique resource of UK Biobank to test this theory."
A better understanding of the genetics behind COPD would allow doctors to direct treatments to those who are most and risk. It could also shed light on developing new treatments.
The UK Biobank - with more than 1,000 pieces of information about each participant - was opened up to researchers worldwide in March, on the condition they put their findings back into the public domain.
China, Sweden and other countries have also set up biobanks but the British one, which cost close to 100 million pounds to plan and develop, is the most comprehensive to date.
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Louise Heavens)