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Biobanking across the phenome - at the center of chronic disease research

Medea Imboden12* and Nicole M Probst-Hensch12

Author Affiliations

1 Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland

2 University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:1094  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-1094

Published: 25 November 2013



Recognized public health relevant risk factors such as obesity, physical inactivity, smoking or air pollution are common to many non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs cluster and co-morbidities increase in parallel to age. Pleiotropic genes and genetic variants have been identified by genome-wide association studies (GWAS) linking NCD entities hitherto thought to be distant in etiology. These different lines of evidence suggest that NCD disease mechanisms are in part shared.


Identification of common exogenous and endogenous risk patterns may promote efficient prevention, an urgent need in the light of the global NCD epidemic. The prerequisite to investigate causal risk patterns including biologic, genetic and environmental factors across different NCDs are well characterized cohorts with associated biobanks. Prospectively collected data and biospecimen from subjects of various age, sociodemographic, and cultural groups, both healthy and affected by one or more NCD, are essential for exploring biologic mechanisms and susceptibilities interlinking different environmental and lifestyle exposures, co-morbidities, as well as cellular senescence and aging. A paradigm shift in the research activities can currently be observed, moving from focused investigations on the effect of a single risk factor on an isolated health outcome to a more comprehensive assessment of risk patterns and a broader phenome approach. Though important methodological and analytical challenges need to be resolved, the ongoing international efforts to establish large-scale population-based biobank cohorts are a critical basis for moving NCD disease etiology forward.


Future epidemiologic and public health research should aim at sustaining a comprehensive systems view on health and disease. The political and public discussions about the utilitarian aspect of investing in and contributing to cohort and biobank research are essential and are indirectly linked to the achievement of public health programs effectively addressing the global NCD epidemic.

Comorbidities; Cohort; Genome wide association study; Non-communicable disease; Phenome; Public health; Risk factors