The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded the Kaiser Permanente Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health (RPGEH) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Institute for Human Genetics a $24.8-million grant to conduct an expansive genotyping project that, once completed, will provide researchers an unprecedented ability to find out which genes and environmental factors, lifestyles and habits, are linked with specific diseases and health conditions that affect millions of Americans, including cancer, heart disease, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders.
Research powered by the RPGEH biorepository, which is the largest and most diverse in the nation, will help increase our understanding about the interplay between genes, lifestyle, and environmental exposures, and how those variables combine to influence people’s health and whether they get certain diseases. These new insights could help hone in on the best possible medical treatments, with less trial and error, for individual patients based on their genes—and, in some cases, new ways to prevent illness.
In 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, awarded the Kaiser Permanente “biobank” $8.6 million to help gather, store and protect its first 200,000 DNA samples, and to build a unique database with relevant health and environmental information. The NIH grant will support the genotyping of the first 100,000 of these samples, which the RPGEH has already collected; and to link this information to decades’ worth of historical clinical data, gathered from health surveys and the Kaiser Permanente electronic health record. The NIH’s National Institute on Aging has taken a leading role in providing funds for this grant in part because the average age of those whose DNA will be genotyped is 65, which has significant ramifications for research into healthy aging and age-related disease.
“The unequaled size and power of this biorepository will enable researchers to analyze genetic, environmental and other health data in ways that were never before possible. The findings they generate will help us target effective prevention and treatment strategies that dramatically improve people’s health and the quality of their care,” said RWJF President and CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A. “We’re excited that this substantial new NIH funding positions the RPGEH to take major leaps forward toward realizing this vision.”
At the same time as it has been gathering DNA samples, through the Foundation’s current grant, the RPGEH has been building a powerful environmental and health database that has already begun to enable researchers to search for detailed information about air and water quality, proximity to parks and healthy foods, and other critical factors that influence people’s health and well being. The addition of genotyping data to this already powerful database opens up an entirely new platform for studying genetic and environmental influences over time on a wide variety of health conditions, across diverse populations, many of which have not been studied in this way before.
The NIH grant is a two-year award of funds approved through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In addition to the National Institute on Aging, the other two funding sources are the National Institute of Mental Health and the NIH Director’s Fund.
“Through the comprehensive biorepository that the RPGEH is developing, researchers will be able to examine health in ways that they have never been able to before,” said Nancy Barrand, special adviser for program development and program officer on the RPGEH grant. “With the genotyping of these 100,000 DNA samples, this will provide a data resource that is literally beyond compare. This huge demonstration of support and confidence from the NIH brings us much closer to understanding the genetic and nongenetic basis for our health and, ultimately, to having new means of detecting, treating and even preventing common diseases.”
The RPGEH and UCSF jointly applied for this grant, and will share the funding. Kaiser Permanente will manage the process of extracting DNA from the saliva samples, and the genotyping will be performed in collaboration with the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics.. Cathy Schaefer, Ph.D., executive director of the RPGEH, will lead the project along with Neil Risch, Ph.D., co-director of the RPGEH and director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics.
The RPGEH, which is based in Kaiser Permanente’s 3.3-million-member plan in Northern California, is one of the first biobanks to include environmental and health information from a broad array of populations. RWJF’s and Kaiser Permanente’s shared goal is to, by 2012, expand the database to 500,000 samples, a volume that would present enough statistical power to identify even subtle effects of environmental and genetic factors in less common health conditions, such as mental health disorders or autoimmune diseases, and make the RPGEH one of the largest population-based biobanks in the world.