Plans for major new US biobank

19 January 2009

US health-care provider Kaiser Permanente is to run a new biobank with specimens from patients enrolled in their health care programme (see Nature news article). The respositary reportedly contains 200,000 samples already, with plans to increase this to 500,000 by 2012 thanks to a grant of US $8.6 million from the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. DNA samples will be linked to electronic medical records and information about environmental exposures, which are to include measures of factors such as air quality, exposure to toxins and features of the social / physical environment such as the presence of parks or pavements near to housing. Data is to be made available to researchers around the world.

The venture is part of Kaiser Permanente's Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health, which seeks to examine the genetic and environmental factors that influence common diseases by creating a large population-based database “with 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” (see press release).

Assuming it achieves the planned numbers, the resource will not only become the largest biobank in the US, but will also be on a scale to rival the largest such facilities already in development, such as the UK Biobank. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper has claimed that concerns about privacy are preventing individuals invited to participate in UK Biobank from joining the venture. However, chief executive of the project Professor Rory Collins said that data security was not a major issue, with lack of time being the main reason given by those who chose not to participate (see Guardian news article).

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