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Databank to catalog African DNA

A university and a genetic database company are partnering to trace the genetic factors behind diseases that disproportionately strike blacks.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A university and a genetic database company are partnering to trace the genetic factors behind diseases that disproportionately strike blacks. The databank could involve DNA samples from 25,000 people of African descent, in America and elsewhere.

The Howard University College of Medicine and Chicago-based First Genetic Trust announced Tuesday that they would work together on the GRAD Biobank project. GRAD stands for “Genomic Research in the African Diaspora.”

The partners plan to collect detailed medical histories and genetic information from about 25,000 people of African descent over five years, beginning with African-American patients at hospitals associated with the historically black university. Eventually, the scope of the project will be expanded through Howard University’s alumni network to include international locations, the university said.

If the GRAD Biobank proceeds as planned, it would rank among the nation’s largest genetic research databases.

Funds are being sought for the project from the federal government and other potential sources, and the first subjects should be recruited in early 2004, said Daniel Schmitt, a spokesman for First Genetic Trust. The project would be conducted in compliance with federal medical privacy guidelines, and First Genetic Trust’s enTrust gene bank system would be used to keep the resulting database secure.

Seeking genetics clues
GRAD Biobank will focus on people of African descent because they have been chronically underrepresented in past clinical research, suffer significantly higher rates of certain diseases and respond to medical therapies in ways that differ from other ethnic groups, said Arthur Holden, chairman and chief executive officer of First Genetic Trust.

Schmitt told that the research would delve into the genetic roots of African-Americans’ health problems.

“It’s a combination of relative prevalence and the health implications,” he said. “Diabetes plays a large role in the African community, heart disease as well … so it’s going to be selective and it’s going to be impactful. This is really focused on advancing health care.”

In addition to diabetes and high blood pressure, the GRAD Biobank would focus on asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer and obesity — conditions Howard University already is researching.

The university has experience with such genetic studies, working with the NIH on smaller projects hunting genetic clues for why black Americans are at greater risk for some of those diseases. It also is spearheading an international study hunting for genetic clues to diabetes in Nigeria, Ghana and the United States.

Much of the research on diseases that strike minorities disproportionately has dwelt on income and other social differences, noted Georgia Dunston, director of Howard University’s National Human Genome Center. New genetics tools will allow researchers to see how genetic vulnerabilities interact with social conditions to spur disease, she explained.

Medicine and ancestry
The planned program is one of several projects under way around the country to study genetic differences among certain populations.

Research shows the DNA sequence of any two people is 99.9 percent alike, regardless of race. But subtle variations in genetic structure, called polymorphisms, can greatly affect an individual’s risk of disease.

The National Institutes of Health already has begun a $100 million effort to identify disease-causing polymorphisms, called the International HapMap Project. It is analyzing genetic patterns in blood samples taken from people in Nigeria, Japan and China and from people of northern and western European ancestry in the United States.

Genetic studies of particular racial or ethnic groups are sensitive. A distrust of research lingers among many black Americans because of the notorious Tuskegee experiments of the 1930s, when syphilis researchers withheld treatment from black study participants. Having a historically black medical school attempt the DNA database is reassuring, and may result in more participation, said Dr. L. Natalie Carroll, president of the black physicians group, the National Medical Association.

In addition to the medical projects, several DNA database efforts have the less controversial goal of linking specific bits of genetic code to an individual’s ancestry.

Several such projects focus on African-Americans:

African Ancestry, established by Howard University genetic researcher Rick Kittles, is a fee-based commercial service that offers Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing to individuals of African descent who are hoping to determine the region of origin for their ancestors.

The African Burial Ground Project, which also involves Howard University researchers, is studying remains unearthed from a colonial-era graveyard for free and enslaved blacks in Manhattan. Some DNA analysis has been conducted on the remains, but that aspect of the project has weathered its share of controversy.

The African-American DNA Roots Project is a 10-year effort to catalog the genetic signatures of black Americans and seek to link them to particular West African tribes. The project’s principal investigators are from the Boston University School of Medicine and the University of South Carolina.

MSNBC’s Alan Boyle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.