The effort will make use of existing saliva samples taken from California patients, whose average age is 65. Their DNA will be analyzed for 700,000 genetic variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, using array analysis technology from Affymetrix. Through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the resulting information will be available to other researchers, along with a trove of patient data including patients’ Kaiser Permanente electronic health records, information about the air and water quality in their neighborhoods, and surveys about their lifestyles.
The target age group shows that the focus is on “secondary aging”:
Given the high average age of the group, the platform will also be a boon to studying diseases of aging. “One might want to ask,” Schaefer says, “what are the genetic influences on changes in blood pressure as people age, and how are those changes in blood pressure related to diseases of aging, like stroke and Alzheimer’s and other cardiovascular diseases?”
UCSF will perform separate procedures on the samples to determine the length of telomeres–sections of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect against damage. The length of telomeres is associated with cell division and aging. One of the coinvestigators on the project is Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at UCSF who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on telomeres.