At the Kaiser Research Center in the East Bay, technicians treat saliva samples a bit like genetic gold and with good reason. The samples, donated from more than 100,000 members have helped create one of the most unique DNA databases in the country.
"The power is really unprecedented," said Cathy Schaefer, Ph.D., the co-director of Kaiser's Division of Research.
Schaefer says the project builds on the massive archive of medical records Kaiser has collected on members for decades.
"So it includes diagnosis of disease, it includes surgical and other kinds of procedures that people would have had done, it includes really comprehensive pharmacy information," said Schaefer.
Then several years ago, researchers from Kaiser teamed up with colleagues at UCSF to turn that treasure-trove of medical minutia into a searchable database. The idea was that scientists could cross-check it for clues, possibly linking disease to factors ranging from diet to race to environment. However, at the last minute, they added one extra component -- the saliva samples.
With a $25 million grant from the federal government, researches have now been able to analyze the DNA in those samples turning an already valuable tool into a kind of genetic search engine.
"So we realized there was a unique opportunity to try to link all that with the newly developing genetic information," said Risch.
Neil Risch directs the Institute for Human Genetics at UCSF. He says the gene analysis took more than a year, with computers and high-end lab equipment running 24 hours a day. But the results could potentially benefit research into a wide cross-section of diseases.
"Things like hypercholesterolemia, heart disease, hypertension, prostate cancer, diabetes," said Risch.
And because the database includes information on habits such as smoking and drinking, along with where patients lived, researchers hope to match disease not only to genetics, but outside risk factors as well.
"We can assemble all this information into a model, for example of how disease develops and progresses. And that should give us clues about, not just treatments, but preventions," said Risch.
The database project will have benefits well beyond the Bay Area. The Kaiser-UCSF team is in the process of making information from the database available to researchers nationwide.
Written and produced by Tim Didion