WASHINGTON — Wanted: A million people willing to share their DNA and 10 years of health habits, big and small, for science.
On Sunday, the U.S. government will open nationwide enrollment for an ambitious experiment: If they can build a large enough database comparing the genetics, lifestyles and environments of people from all walks of life, researchers hope to learn why some escape illness and others don’t, and better customize ways to prevent and treat disease.
“A national adventure that is going to transform medical care,” is how Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, describes his agency’s All of Us Research Program.
Congress has authorized $1.45 billion over 10 years for the project. It all hinges on whether enough people around the country will sign up, either online or through participating health centers.
There’s already interest: More than 25,000 people got early entry to the project over the past year through an invitation-only pilot test run by participating universities and health providers.
Why study so many?
Most of today’s medical care is based on what happened to the average person in short studies of a few hundred or thousand patients with a specific health condition.
And most people who volunteer for those studies are white, leaving questions about the best care for people of different races.
“One-size-fits-all is far from an optimal strategy,” Collins said Tuesday in announcing enrollment for All of Us.
The project involves “precision medicine,” using traits that make us unique to forecast and treat disease. Learning enough to individualize care requires studying a massive number of participants: The healthy and not-so-healthy, young and old, rural and urban, blue-collar and white-collar — and people of all races and ethnicities.
For now, participants must be at least 18. Next year, the study will open to children, too.
While there are other big “biobanks” of genetic data from at least 100,000 people, the NIH project aims to be the largest and most diverse of its kind. At least half of the participants must be from groups traditionally under-represented in medical research, Collins stressed.