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HMO studies gene/disease link


OAKLAND, Calif.—Kaiser Permanente unveiled a research project last week aimed at examining the genetic and environmental causes behind diseases such as diabetes, asthma and Alzheimer's.

The Oakland, Calif.-based health maintenance organization said member participation will be critical for success of the Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health. Kaiser Permanente said it would mail surveys to about 2 million adult plan participants in Northern California, inquiring about health history, lifestyle and habits.

Researchers will invite members to give blood or saliva samples to obtain genetic information, probably in 2008.

Many common diseases and conditions are linked to genetic and environmental factors, and the research could help identify risks a particular person might face, how to reduce those risks and the best way to treat disease, Kaiser said in a statement.

The goal of RPGEH is to discover which genes and environmental factors--air, drinking water and personal lifestyles and habits--are linked to specific diseases and conditions, Kaiser said.

While scientists agree that genetics and the environment influence health conditions, little is understood about how the two interact to impact disease, said Cathy Schaefer, the project's director.

Researchers also said during a press conference that they hope that 500,000 plan participants and their family members respond. Their survey responses will stay within Kaiser's research unit and will not be used for underwriting or premium pricing decisions, Ms. Schaefer said.

Ms. Schaefer said that California law prohibits the use of genetic data for employment or insurance decisions. She also noted that the U.S. House last week introduced a bill similar to California's law with "equal or better protections that hopefully will become law after being passed by the House of Representatives."

The ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Kaiser's Northern California members will assure that research results will be applicable to everyone and not just certain population subgroups, the researchers said.