The Estonian Gene Project (EGP), a research venture of the University of Tartu, has set an ambitious goal to collect DNA samples from 100,000 people within the next few years.
As of October 2008, 25 per cent of the target has been achieved and EGP is now by far the largest database of health, genealogical and genome data in Estonia. According to Professor Andres Metspalu, Director of EGP, Estonia ranks among the leading European countries in the field of genetic research.
First 1,000 gene maps completed
A person’s genetic data is stored on the gene map. As of October 2008, the first thousand of these maps have been completed by random choice. “However, at the moment this map does not contain enough data that would be of any practical help for a donor,” concedes Metspalu. He compares the existing gene map with a crossword puzzle in which the squares are mostly empty. A large part of the gene markers that have been discovered recently explain only a small number of illnesses and their genetic risks – science simply does not develop that quickly.
“One fine day, though, I imagine one could go to his/her family physician, who will turn on the computer, enter the person’s code and the computer would list the patient’s major health risks and protective markers that are written in his/her genes,“ the professor confidently foretells.
Genetic data in future medicine
The gene map as it exists today is an immensely long Excel worksheet with 370,000 rows. 99.5% of human genes are identical from one individual to another. However, on average every thousandth nucleotide is different. These nucleotides serve as “mileposts” or markers, which help us to determine the location of a certain gene in the genome.
“The research which aims to identify whether one or another gene variation can be linked to a certain illness still continues,” explains Metspalu. There are also other types of genetic variation – for example, in the case of many cancers gene arrangements are much more important than single point variations.
Genes also influence the effect of medicines – one drug may work with one specific gene variation and the other with another one. According to Metspalu, genetic research will also help avoid the side effects of drugs and find the right dose for a particular person, which corresponds to his/her metabolic status.
Genetic map of the European populations
The more than 25,000 blood samples collected already make it possible to conduct various background studies. For example, comparing the genetic data of Estonians with other European nations has revealed that Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and some Russians are genetically much more similar to Estonians than the Finns with whom Estonians share a similar language.
Estonian Genome Project
• Founded by the government of Estonia in 2001
• Joined UT in 2007
• 25,000 gene donors in the database
• Forecasted to reach 100,000 donors in 3 years
Andres Metspalu, director of the EGP, why become a gene donor?
By becoming a gene donor you make an investment in the future. Projects like this help to improve medical assistance, develop new diagnostic tests and understanding of why some people develop certain diseases and others don’t, as well as provide answers as to why some people live to an old age whereas others die young. When we finally understand these things, we will also be able to better control and treat these diseases.
And what might be of greatest importance – those who give their blood samples make an investment in their own future. DNA will be extracted from blood and stored in liquid nitrogen at 186°C. Blood cells taken from donors maintain their ability to grow. New cells can be grown from these and perhaps in the future, when science has advanced far enough, it might be possible to use them for treating today’s gene donors.
Sources: Interviews with Prof. A.Metspalu in “Postimees” and other media.