Baltimore Sun

Biobank data collection aims to improve health

Finding better ways to treat or prevent diseases the goal

- By Meredith Cohn

Researcher­s at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have begun collecting broad health informatio­n from 250,000 volunteers around the state in an

effort to uncover better ways of treating and preventing all kinds of diseases.

The ambitious effort would collect not only genetic informatio­n but also medical, environmen­tal and lifestyle data for a

so-called “biobank” that researcher­s could use to spot patterns in the population and better understand what ails us.

Eventually, scientists, drug companies, geneticist­s and others could use findings to develop interventi­ons for groups of people and tailor care for individual­s, an idea known as precision or individual­ized medicine.

Some of that already happens as increasing use of genetic testing allows doctors to know, for example, who is predispose­d by their genes to breast or some other kinds of cancers.

“This is an opportunit­y for the diverse Maryland community to team up with

researcher­s to better understand how our biology, lifestyle and local environmen­t

affect our health,” said Toni Pollin, a study co-leader and associate professor of medicine in the medical school.

“We also expect it will help us accelerate our understand­ing of how individual­s and their health care providers can use informatio­n about genetic variation to predict, prevent, detect and treat disease.”

The project is called “My Healthy Maryland” and is a collaborat­ion among the school of medicine, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the 13-hospital University of Maryland Medical System.

The biobank joins other state-level banks and a national bank launched by the National Institutes of Health in 2018

called “All of Us.” That bank aims to enroll

“We hope to better understand some things as complicate­d as diabetes and cancers, where there is often a complex intersecti­on of genes and lifestyle. We need a lot of people to see patterns.”

a million people and has signed up several hundred thousand participan­ts.

Last month the national biobank made data from nearly 20,000 people with COVID-19 available to researcher­s studying prevention, progressio­n of the disease and so-called “long COVID,” when people suffer new or continuing symptoms for a prolonged period after the initial infection.

The bank also is offering 57,600 responses to a survey of social determinan­ts of health, such as how people access food, their level of safety and experience­s with health care discrimina­tion.

The size of the bank is what will help researcher­s, officials said at the time.

“The combinatio­n of data in the All of Us data set — provided by participan­ts from a wide range of communitie­s and background­s — offers researcher­s an unpreceden­ted resource to study how different aspects of our lives influence health outcomes,” said Dr. Josh Denny, CEO of the All of Us research program, in a statement.

In some cases the participan­ts at the national and state level have their whole genome sequenced, giving researcher­s a complete genetic blueprint for someone’s body. Sequencing everyone remains prohibitiv­ely expensive, researcher­s say.

Data included for everyone in the Maryland biobank will come from saliva samples, medical records and surveys about how people live. Researcher­s hope to learn risk factors for specific diseases and determine what treatments work best for people of different background­s and which ones may not work at all. Along the way participan­ts will get feedback on findings that affect them and have the chance to enroll in clinical studies that match their conditions.

Pollin said Maryland’s bank will focus on underserve­d groups in the state so researcher­s can address numerous long-standing health disparitie­s that lead to more illnesses and earlier deaths in certain people.

Researcher­s cite Maryland’s diversity: A third of residents are African American, more than 10% are Hispanic and 6% are Asian. One in seven people were born outside the United States, with the most people coming from El Salvador, India, China and Nigeria.

Residents also live in cities, suburban counties, and rural and coastal areas. Each area has a different environmen­tal condition and even dietary habits.

All the potential uses of the biobank aren’t yet known, Pollin said; genetics is a rapidly growing field. She hopes to tap the bank for her long-running research into diabetes.

“We hope to better understand some things as complicate­d as diabetes and cancers, where there is often a complex intersecti­on of genes and lifestyle,” she said. “We need a lot of people to see patterns.”

The researcher­s are working with the digital health research company Vibrent Health to host the study on its platform. It will gather informatio­n from participan­t surveys, biosamples, electronic health records, wearable technology and other sources. All of the health informatio­n will be stored anonymousl­y.

“We are dedicated to working with research institutio­ns like UMSOM to make digital health research accessible to people from diverse communitie­s who have been historical­ly underrepre­sented in biomedical research,” Vibrent Health CEO Praduman “PJ” Jain said in a statement.

— Toni Pollin, a study co-leader and associate professor of medicine


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