Yale professor Michael Murray and a team of scientists want to collect over 100,000 samples of DNA in the coming years.
They want yours, too.
Since its recent launch in September, a new DNA sequencing project — called Generations — has been collecting blood samples from willing patients across the Yale New Haven Health System. Researchers plan on sequencing the protein-making parts of the genetic material in the blood to better understand, prevent and treat diseases and cancers.
The project may sound like 23andMe, the for-profit DNA testing company that is famous for predicting one’s ancestral makeup. But Murray, a professor of genetics at the School of Medicine, said Generations is much more complex.
“What they’re doing is not to be dismissed, but it only covers a small amount of risk,” he said. “We’ll be looking at more genes and more conditions, and we’ll be looking at them in a more detailed way.”
The process is free and fairly simple. Once a patient reads and signs a consent form, they can do a blood test. A few weeks later, he said, if the samples test positive for a gene variant that could lead to certain diseases, the patient is notified.
“In the best case, you could do it all in a half hour,” he said.
Murray’s team collects the DNA from blood tests instead of cheek swabs because it is more reliable. And unlike blood donations, which can turn potential donors away for their medicine use or sexual orientation, Generations wants as many samples as possible, with the goal of collecting over 100,000 individuals’ DNA.
“All one needs is a medical record number,” he said, and that can be generated on the spot for Yale students.
“There’s no age or health status inclusions or exclusions. Anybody that’s interested can sign up,” he added.
The DNA sequences will then be stored in a “biobank,” or a data repository, for researchers to access and analyze in conjunction with patients’ medical records. With such a large amount of data, Chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine Brian Smith said that Generations can look for trends that would not be as apparent in smaller study groups.
And because the New Haven area “mimics locally what the entire United States looks like” in terms of ethnic origin, Smith said the data will be especially helpful in making connections between diseases and genes.
“The fact that there are so many people from a wide spectrum of genetic backgrounds, combined with the information from the electronic medical record, really gives us the ability to understand that a gene is clearly associated with a medical problem,” he said.
Privacy is a big concern for the project. Since Murray and his team are working within the health system, which legally requires strict confidentiality measures for patient data, the genetic data they collect will be kept safe, Murray said.
But he is well-prepared for the task. In fact, that is what Yale hired him to do.
The researcher came from Geisinger Health in Pennsylvania last year, where he helped to create a biobank with over 50,000 patients’ genetic data.
Now at Yale, Murray plans on replicating that project, but at roughly twice the size. However, much of the testing his team will do will happen later on, as they work out any kinks in the system, he added.
For example, once it becomes available, Generations will also use samples to predict patients’ responses to certain medicines. Armed with such information, Murray said, doctors could know if a patient may need more or less of a medication to reach the desired outcome, compared to the average person.
“You don’t start everything at once,” he said. Every sample they receive will be tested in the future once more features roll out.
To chair of the genetics department Antonio Giraldez, who participated in Generations himself, the project is also a way to prevent costly diseases that can pop up later in life. If a baby’s genetic data reveals that they have a high chance of developing cancer, he said, preventative measures could be taken to make sure cancer does not arise — saving thousands of dollars.
“I hope that many people in greater Connecticut [participate],” he said.
Partial genome sequencing costs hundreds of dollars, according to Smith.
Matt Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org