With Recruits Coming, Precision Med Effort Pledges $142M For Biobank

Xconomy National — 

The Obama administration’s ambitious long-term health study, dubbed the Precision Medicine Initiative, has tapped the Mayo Clinic to build a repository for biological samples collected from the study’s participants. Through the National Institutes of Health, the administration has awarded $142 million over five years to the Rochester, MN-based Mayo Clinic for the so-called “biobank,” which is meant eventually to house more than 35 million blood samples, tissue specimens, and more.

“It’s not meant to be an archive,” said NIH deputy director Kathy Hudson (pictured). “We want it to be actively used” by researchers at Mayo and beyond, she said during remarks at this week’s Big Data in Biomedicine conference at Stanford University.

The U.K. has built its own repository for long-term study, called U.K. Biobank, with half a million volunteers. The Obama administration wants twice that, recruited directly, through community health centers, or by patching in people already taking part in long-term health studies. One of those studies is being run by Duke University and was put together originally by Robert Califf, who was confirmed earlier this year as FDA commissioner and also spoke at the Stanford conference.

Enrollment should start by the end of the year, Hudson said, and it will take several years to reach the goal of one million participants. At first, the “data set will be rather limited as we get our sea legs,” she said. The easiest data to collect at first, Hudson said, will come not from physical exams, genome sequencing, and other medical tests, but from participants answering questions on their phones about lifestyle, diet, social interactions, and the like.

Collecting personal information through surveys to bolster genetic information is a key to genetic data provider 23andMe’s business. 23andMe, of Redwood City, CA, has more than 1 million customers and uses email to contact them with targeted questions. (Hudson said she liked the company’s example of asking whether customers were “morning people or night people.”)

With its huge customer database, 23andMe is often cited as a potential partner for the PMI. Indeed, the company has asked to participate, but so far to no avail. “We’d love to work with the initiative, and we’ve applied for several grants,” 23andMe chief science officer Richard Scheller said at the Stanford conference Wednesday, “but none have been funded. We must be doing something not quite right.”

But more grants are on the way. The NIH said it would announce more funding this summer to create enrollment and operations centers.

The Mayo biobank will be split into two sites to protect against local disaster, the NIH said.