With the recent completion of the Human Genome Project and other gene-mapping efforts, researchers have a detailed map of humans' genetic structure. Research is now focused on translating this knowledge into improved medical care customized to an individual patient's health care needs. The next step in genomics research is to learn which genetic variations are associated with a particular disease, condition, or health characteristic. To do this, researchers must analyze and compare DNA from a huge number of participants—some with the disease or condition, others without.
New discoveries in genomics—accelerated by the Million Veteran Program, as well as by sophisticated robots and other automated systems for analysis—could improve screening and diagnosis and point toward more effective treatments. Such information could enhance care by revealing ways to quiet cancer-causing genes, for example, or activating genes to defeat cancer. Genomics-based approaches already in use at the VA include genetic tests to help diagnose breast, colon, and other cancers and to confirm the diagnosis of hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition in which iron builds up in the body.
Among the areas of ongoing VA research:
As in all VA research efforts, protection of Veterans' information is the highest priority in genomic medicine research. Various safeguards have been established to protect Veterans' privacy and safeguard the confidentiality of their genetic information. Among them: strict rules for collection of DNA samples for VA research studies. To maintain privacy, Veterans' samples are labeled with a code that does not contain any personal information (such as name, address, or Social Security number) before they are stored for analysis. Researchers who are granted access to Veterans' samples for analysis are not given any information that would identify who donated them. A "key" that links the code to the Veteran's identity is maintained in an encrypted file that only a limited number of authorized staff can access.
A Genomic Medicine Program Advisory Committee, which advises the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, lays the groundwork for the VA Research Genomic Medicine Program. Members include leaders in the public and private sectors and academia in the fields of genetics research and medical genetics; genomic technology; health information technology; and health care delivery, policy, and program administration. The committee also includes a Veterans Service Organization representative.
Genetic Research at VA
by Maren Scheuner, MD, MPH (3:38)