Kaiser fills a biobank with a wealth of data

Studies on prostate cancer and bipolar disorder are poised to tap into a new health data repository.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Jan. 6, 2009

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

Kaiser Permanente is constructing what is expected to be one of the world's largest and most diverse repositories of genetic, environmental and health data.

The Kaiser repository already has 40,000 DNA samples from members of its giant California-based health plan and expects to have 500,000 samples by 2012.

This information will be made available to researchers interested in exploring the genetic and environmental factors that influence almost every aspect of health.

Such repositories, generally called biobanks, have been proliferating in recent years. The hope is that by pooling the genetic, health and environmental information of many people, researchers will be able to determine more precisely the triggers for rare as well as common diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and cancer.

The DNA samples of participants in the Kaiser database will be joined by information on their health, the air they breath and their likely exposures to toxins. The bank also will note whether sidewalks or safe parks are near enough to allow the participants to exercise or if nearby stores sell fresh vegetables, explained Catherine Schaefer, PhD, director of Kaiser Permanente's Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health, which will develop and maintain the data.

The Kaiser biobank will draw upon details available in public and private databases on air pollution and pesticide use. It will be pulled together in a geographic information system database that will relate the facts to participants' addresses, said Schaefer.

"These factors could become important, depending on the disease you're talking about," she noted.

Type 2 diabetes, for example, is known to run in families and certain genetic variations seem to increase an individual's risk of developing the disease. But it's more complicated than that, as lifestyle is known to play a role and other, as yet unknown factors, also may be at work.

Kaiser has been working on its data repository since 2005 and expects to have it up and running in the next two to five years. An $8.6 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is providing a major boost.

"The unequaled size and power of this biorepository will drive research that can dramatically improve the health and health care of millions of Americans," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the foundation, when announcing the award Dec. 17, 2008.

Putting the data to work

Projects scheduled to begin using the database in 2009 include:

  • A study on prostate cancer in African-American men that will look for genetic and nongenetic factors that place these men at higher risk of the disease.
  • A study on bipolar disorder, a disease known to run in families. Researchers hope to find specific genes and other factors that determine an individual's susceptibility.

"We want to utilize the information that comes from this research program to improve people's health, not just Kaiser members, but everyone's health," said Schaefer.

The undertaking is also expected to lead to deeper knowledge of disease itself, she said. "Understanding all the different stages is more likely to lead to improvements in treatment and also strategies for preventing diseases altogether."

The diversity of the enrollees in Kaiser health plans will make the information in the databank representative of the population as a whole, she said.

The biobank project is based at the 3.3 million-member Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Plan in Northern California.

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn