In the early 1990s, Zhengming Chen began to imagine what could be learned about disease from storing and studying biological samples from hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of people.

“Normally, people would throw away samples,” Chen, the Richard Peto Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, said in a BBC interview. “We said, ‘You know, in the future, science will be very different, we need to prepare.’”

And so the collection began.

In 2004, Chen founded the China Kadoorie Biobank, the first of its kind, with a goal of collecting blood and other samples, along with genetic data and information on lifestyle factors and health conditions, from 500,000 Chinese people. He is the biobank's principal investigator.

Chen also works with the UK Biobank, which holds information from half a million United Kingdom participants. The data set is so large that it includes individuals who were born throughout the world and can serve as a global reference of worldwide populations when used in its entirety.

By analyzing disease in the context of extremely diverse genetic data alongside health and environmental factors, scientists can delve deeper into understanding the most common threats to human health.

Chen, a fellow of Academy Europaea, will discuss the rise and importance of biobanks in his talk, “Unleashing the Power of Big Biobanks in the East and West for Precision Medicine” on March 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. The talk is free and open to the public and is preceded by a reception at 5 p.m.

“The opportunities are just endless,” Chen said. “I think over the next five or 10 years, a combination of technology and biobanks will generate a huge amount of information that can inform the treatment, prevention, and management of disease.”

Chen’s talk will be the latest in the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series. The series named for a longtime community benefactor and businessman who supports biomedical research with the goal of energizing the local economy and improving quality of life in our neighborhoods and around the world. 

“Dr. Chen is a true pioneer in both the conceptualization and implementation  of the world’s first biobanks,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Since its inception, the China Kadoorie Biobank alone has recorded more than 1.5 million disease episodes of more than 5,000 disease types. Dr. Chen appreciated early on the power of this type of data curation and the coming importance of powerful computational and analytical tools that would eventually revolutionize biomedical research and the practice of medicine. This is the kind of innovation that can change health trajectories for all the people of the world, including those from populations who are generally not included in many of these large studies. We are fortunate to have Dr. Chen visit the research institute and our community to tell us about it — it is a rare opportunity to hear from such a visionary internationally recognized leader in health.”

Chen also serves as co-executive director of the China-Oxford Centre for International Health Research. He earned bachelor’s degree and Master of Science from Shanghai Medical University and his doctorate in epidemiology from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine at the University of Oxford.

Chen is the author of the 2021 book “Population Biobank Studies: A Practical Guide.”

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