Doctors may soon be able to predict if patients will develop a particular disease based on their genes and lifestyle.
University researchers launched a study Tuesday titled “Genes for Good,” which aims to collect health and genetic information to better understand human health and preventative medicine. The study is co-led by Biostatistics Prof. Goncalo Abecasis and Scott Vrieze, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Vrieze wrote in an e-mail interview that the goal of Genes for Good aligns with the aim of the Precision Medicine Initiative, which was announced during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address in January.
Obama characterized the initiative as a research effort to “revolutionize” how diseases are treated. The program was launched with a $215 million investment in the president’s 2016 budget.
The initiative aims to help clinicians provide the best possible care for patients by taking the patients’ genes, environments and lifestyles into account when determining medical treatments.
“What we’re doing is not unlike that which is being proposed and discussed for the new NIH Precision Medicine Initiative,” Vrieze wrote.
Abecasis said the recent technological advances have facilitated biomedical data analysis, which traditionally has been the limiting factor. He said researchers now need ways to generate and collect a large dataset of genetic and health information for analysis.
“One of the questions we were interested in was figuring out how to engage large numbers of people in research in a cost-effective manner,” Abecasis said. “By reaching large numbers of people, we can explore questions that can’t be tackled in small studies.”
Genes for Good collects health information by having its participants complete various health and lifestyle surveys. Once a certain number of surveys are completed, the participants can send in saliva samples to get their genes analyzed.
The genetic information includes details about an individual’s ancestry, such as what fraction of a patient’s genes originated from which continents.
Though participants can also download a full copy of the genetic information compiled through the project, the information will not be completely user-friendly in its current form.
“(It) is probably more useful for aficionados at the moment,” Abecasis said. “But that will become gradually more useful as more annotation services become available.”
Currently, the study uses Facebook as a platform to engage and reach out to a large, diverse group of people.
“We thought Facebook would be a place where many people already spent time as part of their regular routine,” Abecasis said. “And that perhaps they might answer some questions about their health as a small addition to that routine.”
Abecasis also said his team is currently working on a mobile version of the app to reach more individuals.
Rackham student Shweta Ramdas said she participated in Genes for Good because she wanted to contribute to the ongoing research.
“I saw this as win-win, really,” Ramdas said. “It’s also a great feeling knowing that you’re contributing to a research study, even if in a small way.”
Ramdas, who is studying bioinformatics, said she participated because her research project centers on human genetics. However, she wants to see others who do have background in genetics to participate in the study as well.
“I’d also want my non-Ph.D. friends to get excited about genetics and its increasing presence in our lives over the next few decades,” Ramdas said.