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
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Washington -- 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.