This week, the US government is initiating a nationwide enrollment for an ambitious genetics database. They want a million people to share their DNA and 10 years of health habits to help advance science. The idea is that by building a large enough database comparing the genetics, lifestyles and environments of people from all backgrounds, researchers will be able to investigate why some escape illness and others don’t, and thus help customize disease therapies.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), describes the project as a “A national adventure that is going to transform medical care”.
Congress has already authorized $1.45 billion over 10 years for the All of Us Research Program. The NIH hopes the project will be the largest and most diverse of its kind. At least half of the participants must be from groups traditionally under-represented in medical research. In addition, participants must be at least 18 years old, but the study will open to children at a later stage.
Volunteers will share their electronic health records and answer periodic questionnaires about lifestyle factors such as their diet, sleep and environmental exposures. They may be asked to wear fitness trackers and other sensors. Their blood samples will undergo genetic testing to look for variants in DNA that affect disease risk. Fully mapping the genetic code would be too expensive for a million people but could be pilot-tested with some volunteers.
One of the first questions that Dr Collins hopes to learn is about resilience: Why do some people stay healthy despite smoking or pollution or poor nutrition?
“We have no idea how those people escape those odds”, he said.
A big advantage of taking part in the All of Us Research Program is that participants can choose to see their own test results and share them with their physician before the study end.
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