Kaiser Permanente Starts 'Groundbreaking' Genetic Research Program

The Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research announced Feb. 14 it is launching one of the largest U.S. research projects ever undertaken to examine genetic and environmental factors that influence common diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's, and asthma. The goal of the Kaiser Permanente Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health is to discover which genes and environmental factors are tied to specific diseases.

Program co-investigators are Cathy Schaefer, Ph.D., director of the program and a research scientist at the division in Oakland, Calif., and Neil Risch, Ph.D., director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics and an adjunct investigator at Kaiser Permanente. The division's release said about 2 million adult KP members in Northern California will receive a survey in the mail asking about their background, health history, lifestyle, habits, and family medical history. "Later, researchers will invite members to give a biological sample in the form of blood or saliva that can be used to obtain genetic information. Before any research involving genetic information can occur, the [program] will obtain informed, written consent from Kaiser Permanente members," the release says.

All of this genetic, health, and survey information will be combined in databases, giving researchers a deeper understanding of how genetic and environmental factors together influence the risk of complex diseases. "Understanding the critical interaction between genes and the environment on health will have an important impact on the way all of us look at health and disease in the future," Schaefer said in the release. "For instance, our research could help us identify not only what diseases a person may be at risk for, but also identify how to reduce that risk or how best to treat the disease. This research program provides an exciting opportunity to make significant progress toward improvements in health and medical care." The division has created a scientific advisory panel of outside experts and also a community advisory panel to ensure the program "meets the highest scientific standards, as well as addresses issues of potential concern to different communities," it said. For more information on the program, visit www.dor.kaiser.org.

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