Finnish researchers to create DNA database of 500,000 people for disease studies

Researchers at the Finnish publicly and privately-funded research project FinnGen say they want to broadly expand the number of DNA samples of Finnish residents in order to find new methods of fighting diseases.

File photo of DNA. Image: Pixabay

The DNA samples of around 230,000 Finns have already been collected for use in earlier studies, but FinnGen researchers say they want to double the number of samples over the next six years.

As the genetic surveys are collected they will be compiled in a biobank, according to Helsinki University professor Aarno Palotie who heads the public-private endeavour.

"It is ambitious but overall, Finnish people want to provide their DNA (for research)," he said.

The FinnGen researchers say the project is one of the largest studies of its type, and aims to improve health care in general but also to identify new therapies and diagnostics for treating — and preventing — scores of diseases.

FinnGen has a budget of around 60 million euros and receives funding from the public funding agency Business Finland and seven pharmaceutical firms: Abbvie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celgene, Genentech, Merck & Co. and Pfizer.

DNA donors voluntary

DNA samples will be collected through blood taken at hospitals and health care clinics and from blood donors.

Palotie said that patients who are receiving care can offer to allow a bit more blood to be taken during blood screenings or can even have blood taken specifically for the genetic biobank.

"No one will be forced to participate, it is entirely voluntary. I have given a sample of my blood because it is a way to advance research and improve treatments," he said.

For genetic analysis the blood samples, with an identifying number on each glass vial, will be transported from Finland to big labs in Asia.

The Asian laboratories are equipped to test huge numbers of DNA samples — even millions of them — every year.

Rare diseases pinpointed

The genetic screenings will only examine about 100,000 genetic tags out of the roughly 10 million tags found in a human's DNA. Palotie said that it is not necessary to analyse all of the tags when there are so many separate samples.

With the information provided by the broad survey researchers will be able to pinpoint and better understand genetic diseases, even rare ones which only affect one person out of every thousand, he said.

Researchers will also likely learn more about the links between genetics and various diseases, he said of the study.

"We have usually treated patients in terms of averages. Very few of us are average. We should focus more on personal care and to prevent illnesses," Palotie said.

Following collection of the DNA samples, they can be combined with the data of national health registries, which would be a major advantage, he said. DNA registries are permitted in Finland, but not in many countries, he noted.

Docs to take DNA into consideration

The fruits of the labour of the genetic data collection will be seen within 10 to 15 years, he said, and will likely become a routine part of a trip to the doctor's office.

"The doctor will be able to say, 'Well now, you have these gene variations. That means we should not give you this medicine, but maybe this one, at a such-and-such dose, because it suits your particular DNA,'" Palotie predicted.

Another possibility the genetic data bank may create is more thorough and individualised risk assessment, for example in the case of statin therapies used to thwart cardiovascular diseases. Today, the current barometers for such illnesses are only a patient's age and weight.

The genetic biobank will also be a boon for pharmaceutical firms' research teams.

The process of creating new drugs will be fast-tracked at twice current speeds, he said, possibly in as short a period as 6-7 years, instead of the current 10-12 year testing and research period, Palotie said.

"This is because we will be able to understand the influence of genetics better — the way genes affect various diseases," he said.

Edit: Story updated on 18.01 at 4.41 pm to remove reference to Kenilworth, which is the location of pharma company Merck in New Jersey, USA.