Long-term population studies help researchers plan for future discoveries today
The effects of interactions between genes and the environment are often long term, so the medical consequences – such as diabetes or cancer – don’t appear until later in life. That means waiting a long time for research results, too. Nowadays, the collection of DNA samples from people who enrol in studies is done with plans to keep the samples for many decades and to make sure that any new tests that emerge along the way can still be applied to them.
One far-sighted study in the west of England began in 1991. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) signed up more than 14,000 mothers before their babies were born. The children have been followed ever since – and as young adults, some are on the advisory panel that oversees the project. The research explores a range of social and medical issues.
ALSPAC’s findings so far include that eating oily fish in pregnancy improves the child’s eyesight, that children growing up in very hygienic homes are more likely to get asthma, and that men who smoked as children have fatter sons (and fatter daughters, but to a lesser extent). Now, by recruiting the children of the original children, the researchers hope to learn more about genetic influences on health. The aim is to use the results of the study to improve the health of future generations.
Larger still is UK Biobank, a national study that is recruiting 500,000 people aged 45–69. They will have a health screening interview, donate blood samples and agree to allow their future medical records to be shared with the researchers. The big numbers should help to reveal the numerous factors (with small individual effects) that contribute to the development of a disease. Data could even be combined with data from larger studies, such as China’s Taizhou biobank.Lead image:
Cropped from Aikawa Ke/Flickr