A healthcare network and a research institute in Nevada are planning to sequence the DNA of 40,000 Nevadans, as part of an effort to understand what health issues might be particular to people in the region.
The Healthy Nevada Project is a now years-long effort to study the health of people living in the northern portion of Nevada, bounded by the Sierra on one side and the deserts of Utah on the other. It includes the city of Reno, but most of the population is rural. And it’s almost entirely serviced by one healthcare network, Renown Health, which is running the study alongside the Desert Research Institute.
“Most of the people in this huge region go to just one hospital that has been collecting pretty good data over a long period of time,” Joe Grzymski, the project lead at the Desert Research Initiative, told Gizmodo. “That makes this a pretty good place to study the total health of a population. We want to create a complete population health portrait. And one of those components is genetics.”
By combining population data with a large sample of regional individual genetic information, Grzymski said the project might paint a more accurate picture of regional health in order to better treat and prevent common issues.
For instance, he said, Northern Nevada has a high rate of death from respiratory disease. Air quality in the region fluctuates from pristine to some of the worst in the country.
“That’s one thing we could study,” he said. “You could imagine if we have enough data we might find some links between genetics and problems related to air quality.”
Because genetic testing is trendy right now, he said, the researchers are also interested in seeing whether it might be a useful strategy for getting people more involved in their health and interested in participating in research. In exchange for participation, research subjects get one free DNA “app” from Helix’s online marketplace of genetics products. (He said the research initiative is careful to fully brief participants on the privacy risks associated with DNA testing.)
“For the first time, we can bring the power of next-generation sequencing into research while also engaging people directly with the opportunity to learn from their DNA,” Helix co-founder Justin Kao told Gizmodo.
The new sequencing effort is the second phase of research. In September 2016, the project collected saliva samples from 10,000 Northern Nevadans with company 23andMe. Now, it’s planning to sequence 40,000 more genomes, this time in a partnership with the DNA-testing upstart Helix, which sequences not just random interesting snippets of DNA, but all of a person’s expressed DNA—what’s known as the exome. The work is funded through the state’s Office on Economic Development.
It’s unlikely, though, said Grzymski, that the they’ll uncover some headline-grabbing mutation in the genetic code of Northern Nevadans.
“Do I expect to find a protective mutation because Nevadans have been isolated for a thousand years?” Grzymski joked. “No. Genetics is not going to solve every single problem. What we’re really trying to do is understand our population better and get people engaged in health conversations.”