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Kaiser Permanente Unveils Genetic Research Program

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The Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research is launching a research projects in the United States to examine the genetic and environmental factors that influence common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's disease, asthma and many others.

The goal of the Kaiser Permanente Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health (RPGEH) is to discover which genes and environmental factors are linked to specific diseases.

Researchers hope to explain how genes and environmental factors work together to influence the risk of getting a disease or affect its severity or outcome, according to program co-investigators Cathy Schaefer, PhD, director of the RPGEH and a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, and Neil Risch, PhD, director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics and an adjunct investigator at Kaiser Permanente.

The Research Program will also include studies of genetic and non-genetic factors that affect how people respond to specific medications, including the occurrence of side effects.

Almost all common diseases and health conditions are linked both to genetic and environmental factors, according to the researchers. "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," said Schaefer.

Member participation is critical to the success of the RPGEH. With that in mind, Kaiser Permanente is inviting members to participate in a survey that will be the first step in building the research program.

Approximately 2 million adult members in Northern California will receive a survey by mail, asking questions about their background, health history, lifestyle and habits, and their family's 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 RPGEH will obtain informed, written consent from Kaiser Permanente members.

By combining the genetic, health, and survey information from hundreds of thousands of members into databases, researchers hope to gain a deeper understanding of what combinations of genes and environmental factors influence the risk of complex diseases.

The success of RPGEH hinges on having a high number of Kaiser Permanente participants, with good representation of all groups in the population. Large groups provide the statistical power that is necessary to detect the subtle and complex relationships between genes, environmental factors and disease.

"Because the population we hope to include in this program is so large and diverse, the research can be generalized," explained Schaefer.

"In the world of medicine today, one way a physician determines a patient's risk for a serious condition like heart disease is by taking a family history," said Joe Selby, MD, MPH, director of the Division of Research.

"However, the Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health will hopefully give us information that is far more useful and will enable the medical community to be much more precise in pinpointing the causes of disease and tailoring treatment for the individual."