Monday, January 23, 2006

Biobank takes blood for major gene study

Moving back to the brave new world of medicine, an interesting feature in New Scientist starts with, "You might donate blood to help save someone's life. But would you donate your blood, your DNA, and your most intimate medical secrets on a promise that it may help save a life years from now?"

Reporter Andy Coghlan writes, "Half a million people will be expected to do just that in the coming months, with another half a million people to follow, as two huge medical research projects get under way in the UK and US. The British project, called Biobank, is due to start within weeks, after five years of preparation. The American project, announced in 2004 by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is still at the planning stage."

Both of the projects will obtain information that will allow scientists to study extensively how our genes and environment interact over the years to cause disease. That could one day lead to new treatments for cancer and heart disease, among other diseases. The article says, "But the projects are not without their critics, who say they could produce misleading results and raise fundamental questions about who should own our medical details and have access to them. These details not only document our medical past, but might also reveal which medical conditions we and our relatives are likely to suffer from in the future."

Despite such misgivings, the organizers of the two projects are banking on finding hundreds of thousands of volunteers for each project. In the US, participants will be given the option of being told about findings that affect their health, such as whether they are unknowingly developing cancer or carrying HIV. Biobank, however, has decided not to give out such information. It states that it does not want volunteers to be penalized by insurance companies.