Kaiser Kicks Off Large-Scale Genetic Research Project
Oakland-based HMO Kaiser Permanente on Wednesday announced the creation of a decades-long research project that will collect and analyze genetic information from hundreds of thousands of adult members, the San Jose Mercury News reports. Kaiser Permanente has sent surveys to two million members in Northern California asking about their medical history, exercise and eating habits.
Researchers expect about 500,000 members to participate (Feder Ostrov, San Jose Mercury News, 2/15).
Kaiser Permanente plans to begin a second phase of the project in 2008, when it will ask members to donate genetic material through cheek or blood samples. Researchers then will combine in a database their collected information with Kaiser Permanente's medical history records to study disease causes and possible treatments that could be developed, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports (Elias, AP/Houston Chronicle, 2/14).
The project -- called the Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health -- likely will target cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, diabetes, reproductive problems and other conditions (Peyton Dahlberg, Sacramento Bee, 2/15).
Similar studies are in the works in Great Britain, Iceland, Japan and Estonia, but Kaiser's effort is noteworthy because of its size and the ethnic diversity of its study sample, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/15).
Participation will be voluntary, and the privacy of genetic information will be protected, according to Kaiser Permanente (Rundle, Wall Street Journal, 2/15).
The project will not include research on gene therapy, cloning, stem cell research or testing for specific genetic problems, according to Catherine Schaefer, the project's co-director.
Kaiser Permanente, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation and the Ellison Medical Foundation have provided the project's initial $7 million. Additional funds are expected from the federal government and other foundations (San Jose Mercury News, 2/15).
Neil Risch, co-director of the project and a genetics scientist at the UC-San Francisco, said the Kaiser Permanente research has advantages over similar projects, including the diversity of the Northern California population and the decades of medical information that the HMO already maintains. Risch said, "This program is not just about genes. We also have a clear understanding that nothing in this life is entirely genetic and that environment plays a role in disease" (AP/Houston Chronicle, 2/14).
Risch said that members will be notified when their genetic information indicates that they need medical attention (San Jose Mercury News, 2/15).
David Kessler, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, said, "This is not some esoteric genetic research," adding that the project will help develop a model of targeting medicines at specific genetic profiles (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/15).
Some experts "wondered whether enough Kaiser members trust the HMO to participate in the survey," the AP/Chronicle reports.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said, "That's an open question" (AP/Houston Chronicle, 2/14). Collins said, "The main factors that have prevented us from moving into this is we don't know if the public is comfortable with it and to find the funds to support the large amount of experimental work that must be done" (Wall Street Journal, 2/15).