Genetics research gets help from social media


By Linda Carroll

(Reuters Health) – Researchers have harnessed the power of social media to build a genetic database, according to a new report.

The “Genes for Good” project, which turned to Facebook to recruit people to fill out surveys and send in saliva samples for DNA analysis, has thus far collected data from more than 27,000 volunteers.

Participants come from all 50 states and from diverse ancestral backgrounds, the researchers write in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

“The data we get matches what’s come from traditional studies,” said study coauthor, Goncalo Abecasis, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and vice president for analytical genetics and data sciences at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. “And we’ve been able to do a few things that are hard to do with data collected in the traditional way, such as track people over time.”

The researchers are hoping to discover the functions of various genes through the new database. “It would be nice to be able to figure out the functions of genes in humans rather than in mice,” Abecasis said.

Back in 2015, Abecasis and his colleagues started to wonder whether the popularity of Facebook could be harnessed to develop a database for genetic studies. They built a Facebook page and started taking members. Currently, the Genes for Good project has sent out “spit kits” to more than 32,000 individuals. There is no charge for the kits and their genetic analysis, and participants get information back including a breakdown of their genetic ancestry.

To get a sense of whether the demographics of their volunteers were a good representation of the U.S. population, the Abecasis and his colleagues compared the volunteers’ disease rates to those found in government statistics for the nation as a whole. It turns out that the Genes for Good volunteers had similar disease rates to the rest of the country, although as a group, they are a bit on the younger side. The volunteers also had widely varying ancestry and were diverse geographically and economically. Most of them were from the middle-income bracket with household incomes ranging from $35,000 to $100,000.

Thus far, the team has gotten more than 27,000 kits back out of the more than 32,000 they sent out. Since their method of recruiting volunteers is nontraditional, the researchers decided to compare the demographics of their database to preexisting ones. Previous studies using other databases have identified genetic variants linked to physical traits, such as eye color and skin tone, and to health conditions, such as asthma. The data from Genes for Good largely matched those results.

The researchers have currently paused their data collection while they look for more funding.

Genes for Good seems to have “tapped into the public’s interest in things that are free and ancestry related,” said Dr. Joann Bodurtha, a professor of pediatrics and oncology at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “The biggest new twist in their project is in some of their tracking data.”

The project does have some limitations, Bodurtha said. First, it’s completely dependent on people’s self-reports, she said. These days researchers are finding more accurate ways of following people’s habits and behaviors, such as using Fitbits to determine how much exercise study volunteers are getting, Bodurtha said.

Another issue, Bodurtha said, is the small percentage of African Americans in the database.

SOURCE: American Journal of Human Genetics, online June 13, 2019.