Genomic researchers are looking to America’s “healthy elderly” – those 80 and older with no history of chronic disease – to help them unlock the genetic secrets behind lifelong health.
Scripps Genomic Medicine recently began enrolling participants in its “Wellderly Study,” which seeks 2,000 elderly volunteers to donate their DNA to the program’s gene bank. One-time blood samples will be studied by Scripps researchers to uncover the protective elements of the human genetic code. The program is open to people of all ethnic backgrounds living in the United States.
“We all carry genes that make us susceptible to diseases, but some of us avoid the major illnesses that afflict others,” said Eric J. Topol, M.D., director of Scripps Genomic Medicine and the study’s principal investigator. “Looking at the genes of healthy elderly people is a unique approach to understanding the underpinning biology of health, and ways this can be inherited.”
To date, medical research has largely neglected the genetics of health, instead focusing on finding genetic markers of disease. Through the Wellderly Study, researchers seek to understand the mechanisms that help keep people healthy and protected from disease, and to translate key discoveries into improvements in patient care.
“A great many people carry the genes that cause heart attack, cancer and other diseases, but some have modifier genes that cancel out their risk – it’s nature’s way of protecting them,” Dr. Topol said. “These so-called ‘wellderly’ are, in fact, harboring the secrets of good health.”
The program recently began collecting DNA samples at Scripps Green Hospital and Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines in La Jolla, and will expand to other hospitals and clinics throughout the San Diego-based Scripps Health system.While the study will be based in Southern California, participants will also be enrolled in cities across America through Scripps’ relationships with other health care providers.
Locating the healthy elderly to get DNA samples is challenging, since they don’t spend much time in health care facilities. In the coming months, Scripps expects to attract volunteers by conducting outreach efforts in the community.
“The logistics are tricky, but we have to find them,” said Dr. Topol. “We think as people learn about this program, they’ll want to participate as a way to help benefit the health and well being of future generations.”
Do Jerman, 81, is among the study’s first volunteers. A picture of good health, Jerman maintains a busy schedule that includes golf, swing dancing, working out with a personal trainer and volunteering at a local hospital. The Encinitas resident decided to donate her DNA when she learned about the potentially powerful impact of the program.
“I heard they were looking for healthy 80-year-olds with no medication to put in a gene pool, and I thought, here I am,” said Jerman, who has five grandchildren. “I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do in my life and I wanted to do whatever I could to help.”
Situated along the world’s busiest international border crossing, San Diego County provides the Wellderly Study with a rich base of ethnic diversity. Approximately 30 percent of the region’s population is of Hispanic descent, and more than 10 percent is of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry. San Diego is also home to one of the nation’s highest concentrations of Native Americans.
Those interested in participating in the Wellderly Study must be 80 years or older, with no history of major or chronic disease such as cancer or diabetes, or long-term medication regimen. Participants will meet with a study clinician to undergo a general health assessment, discuss individual and family health history, and donate a small blood sample. More information on the program is available by calling 1-800-SCRIPPS weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Pacific time.
ABOUT SCRIPPS GENOMIC MEDICINE
Scripps Genomic Medicine Program, an initiative of Scripps Health in collaboration with The Scripps Research Institute, will support basic research and clinical programs focused on defining the genes that underlie susceptibility to disease, and take these findings into drug discovery programs and ultimately into clinical trials. The program’s work will involve genotyping tens of thousands of individuals of diverse ancestry in an attempt to identify and define genes responsible for major disease and the underpinnings of health. The identification of these genes will lead to drug discovery and gene-specific clinical trials.