German researchers have begun collecting genetic data from people to study and treat diseases. The blood's already pouring in, but it will still take some time before analysis can begin.
Scientists hope the database will help them understand human DNA
It's not gold nor money that's hidden behind the alarm-secured door in the basement of Kiel's university hospital. Instead, the well-guarded wealth stored there is best measured in milliliters -- blood and DNA samples.
Checking blood samples
"Popgen" is written on thousands of test tubes. That's short for "recruitment of patients and control groups for population genetics."
The aim of the project is to create the country's largest genetic database to help prevent diseases and cure them in the long run.
"Popgen is a genetic and molecular archive of our population," said Stefan Schreiber, the project's director, adding that all probes have been given voluntarily by residents of Germany's northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Kiel is located.
Targeting past and future diseases
Researchers see the database as a way to follow the development of diseases over time. Many lifestyle diseases have developed over the past 70 years, Schreiber said, adding that a new set of challenging illnesses are to come in two decades.
"We'll be glad to have popgen then," he said. "Had popgen been around 30 years ago, we could solve many of today's diseases."
Blood tests in a laboratory
In order to better understand the correlation between genetics, external influences and treatment methods, Schreiber and his team ask people who are ill about their diseases and their lifestyles. A control group of healthy people just donates a blood sample to use for comparison.
Such a database that keeps growing over decades could allow researchers to identify genetic mutations that are responsible for new diseases and find treatments by looking at the way they interact with external factors.
A long way to go
There's a long way to go before this can happen, however, as the probes have not been released for research so far. In order to prevent data abuse, a complicated analysis system has been developed that is still being tested.
It'll still take a while before testing can begin.
Until then, the probes will be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) in special containers.
"Popgen as a database has been devised in a way that it won't pose a risk as far as we can tell," he said. "The big risk posed by genetic medicine is discrimination, of course. But that's caused by society and not genetics."