With 500,000 participants, VA says it has world’s top genomic database

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With 500,000 participants, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Million Veteran Program now has the distinction of being the largest genomic database in the world.

The VA announced the milestone on August 1, when an Army veteran from Montgomery, Ala., became the 500,000th volunteer to enroll in the research database program, which is designed to link genetic, clinical, lifestyle and military-exposure information in partnership with the Obama administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative.

“We are now at a point that puts us ahead of the UK Biobank, which previously had been the world’s largest genomic database,” says David Atkins, MD, the VA’s acting chief research officer.

Launched in 2011, the Million Veteran Program operates at 52 VA sites nationwide, enrolling volunteers with the ultimate goal of securing 1 million participants to better understand how genes affect health and illness.

“Many of our veterans have saved lives on the battlefield, and because of their participation in the Million Veteran Program, their participation has the potential to save countless lives—now and for generations to come,” said VA Secretary Robert McDonald in a written statement.

Atkins, who oversees the VA’s nationwide research enterprise, credits its electronic health record system with providing the research program with a big advantage. “All the patients in the Million Veteran Program are getting care in the VA healthcare system, so we have EHRs that go back decades in the case of older veterans,” he says. “We arguably have clinical data as good as any comparable databases.”

Participants donate blood from which DNA is extracted, as well as give permission to researchers to access their EHRs. Both the samples and data are coded to protect the identification and privacy of volunteers. In addition, participants agree to take a baseline and periodic follow-up surveys to track their military experiences, health and lifestyles.

“Stuff that may not be captured as accurately in the medical record,” adds Atkins. “We’re pretty good at capturing whether people smoke or not, but we don’t necessarily capture how many pack or years they’ve smoked or reliably how much they exercise or diet they follow.”

Researchers hope the information contained in the Million Veteran Program database will help to develop better prevention and treatment of mental illness as well as heart and kidney diseases.

According to the VA, the program already has rich data on various health conditions that are common in veterans. For instance, about 62 percent of participants report a current or past diagnosis of high blood pressure and about a third report tinnitus. Also, 32 percent of veterans present with a history or current diagnosis of cancer.

At the same time, Atkins argues that the main value of having a large population of subjects is “it also allows you to look at health conditions that may not be as common.

“We look forward to turning our attention to actually making use of the data we have,” he concludes. “We certainly have a sufficient number of patients to really ramp up our research. Now is the exciting part, which is to take advantage of the data we collected and to actually do the studies that it will enable.”

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