Estonian scientists developing a 'gene bank' have begun a pilot project using samples from 2,500 of the country's 1.4 million inhabitants, according to a report in the Times newspaper last week. The researchers eventually hope to collect blood samples and a detailed medical history from one million Estonians, in order to shed light on common illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis.
One aim of the project is to identify genetic variations associated with people's response to medicines: 'If we can create a genetic map for each person, we can improve the lives of at least 40 per cent of the population, simply by bringing them closer to the correct medication' said co-founder Janus Pikanione. Information for the database is being collected by family doctors, who send it in an anonymous, coded form to the Estonian Genome Project laboratory in Tartu. Personal genetic information is protected in Estonia by the country's Human Genetic Research Act, which is intended to prevent such data being passed to insurance companies, employers, courts, the police or banks.
A similar database was launched in Iceland in 1999 by biotech firm deCODE Genetics, but not all the country's doctors approve of this national, opt-out gene bank. The pressure group Mannverd was formed to oppose the project, after the government granted deCODE exclusive access to the population's medical records. deCODE claims that Icelanders are more genetically similar than other European people, making it easier to pick out genetic variations associated with disease. But this claim was disputed earlier this year, by geneticist and Mannverd-member Einar Arnason.
In an ongoing debate, deCODE scientist Agnar Helgason and researchers at the University of Oxford have now published more data, which they say provides a 'clear and consistent picture' of Icelanders being one of the more genetically homogenous populations in Europe. Arnason disputes these new results, and says he plans to publish another paper showing that Iceland has a particularly diverse gene pool. But Helgason's colleague Peter Donnelly, a statistician, says that deCODE's success in mapping disease genes could also be down to other reasons, such as good genealogical records and good medical information.