Two projects aiming to pinpoint genetic and other influences on health have been launched in the US. The Genes and Environment Initiative (GEI), based at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will look at genetic variations and measure environmental factors such as exposure to toxins. The other initiative is a partnership between NIH and pharmaceutical and biotech companies, including Pfizer and Affymetrix. Called the Genetic Association Information Network (GAIN), this project aims to link individual genetic differences to common diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.
The $68 million GEI project will build on the findings of the Human Genome Project, and the related HapMap Project - which identified 'blocks' of genetic markers called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that have been inherited together over many generations. Such information should speed up the search for SNPs linked to genes involved in particular illnesses. Mike Leavitt, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said that GEI will ultimately lead to 'profound advances in disease prevention and treatment'.
Scientists already know that SNPs occur about one in every 1000 chemical 'letters' of DNA, but they have yet to find out which of these differences can affect a person's health. As well as studying genetic variations, the GEI project will make use of new technologies - such as small, wearable sensors - designed to measure environmental toxins, dietary intake and physical activity. 'This is the engine that will transform medicine', said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, adding 'this will fuel an era of preventive, personalised, preemptive medicine'.
The GAIN project will initially focus on five different conditions, using $20 million provided by Pfizer, and DNA 'chips' donated by Affymetrix. GAIN eventually aims to raise a total of $60 million in private funding, and will make use of DNA samples already collected from patients for publicly-funded studies. NIH director Elias Zerhouni said that 'over many years, NIH has spent billions of dollars to collect and study patient populations with a wide range of illnesses which can easily be part of this initiative'. The project, run by the Foundation for NIH (FNIH), will invite scientists worldwide to submit applications to have genetic analysis carried out on 1000-2000 existing patient samples.