Have you ever wondered if your dad’s fight with prostate cancer means you could face the same reality? Perhaps several members of your family have struggled with obesity and you wonder if it is something you inherited or if it is caused by the environment. Maybe you have always wanted to learn where your ancestors came from beyond the basic paper trail.
Good news: researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health have an app for that.
A new project that launched March 31 called Genes for Good gives participants the chance to learn more about their health, behavior, and ancestors. In return, those who fully participate provide genetics researchers with valuable data that can be used to better understand the origins of disease, which could lead one day to better treatments, prevention and cures.
“It’s really a research study that offers us a chance to engage with lots of people and get better information on behavior, environment and so on,” said Dr. Goncalo Abecasis, chair of the U-M School of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics and the Felix E. Moore Collegiate Professor of Biostatistics.
Genes for Good uses a Facebook app. Users fill out various health and behavior surveys. Once a certain amount of data is submitted each participant is sent a spit kit to use to provide a saliva sample for genetic analysis.
“Facebook is a place where people already spend considerable time,” Dr. Abecasis said. “We put a very short question in Facebook streams to remind people to submit information. We hope people will find it engaging and stick with it.”
Dr. Scott Vrieze, formerly a co-investigator at U-M before becoming an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, said this approach to providing genetic information to people is different from the commercial products.
“We’re a research group, not a company, so our goals involve scientific understanding, not profit,” he said. “More concretely, participants can have their DNA analyzed, with the results of that analysis, their genotype, returned to them free of cost. Participants can also track components of their health and activity over time and compare themselves to others in the study.”
The data collected through various questionnaires and results from the saliva samples will give genetic researchers more information to build on existing data. Dr. Abecasis and his lab have been involved in numerous genetic studies, and their work has contributed to a better understanding of diabetes, heart disease, addiction, obesity, macular degeneration, psoriasis, and more.
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