Britons Invited to Post Their Genomes Online for Science

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The hunt is on for 100,000 British volunteers to post their genetic information online in the name of science.

The Personal Genome Project UK was launched Thursday, pursuant to the North American open-access DNA project. It gives the public a chance to learn about their own genetic profiles and contribute to medical science.

But it also poises ethical challenges. Unlike other genome-sequencing initiatives where data is kept secret, information contributed to the new project will be available to all.

But George Church of Harvard Medical School, who first launched a U.S. version of the scheme in 2005, believes data- sharing is critical to scientific progress.
"Precision medicine is about big datasets about individuals and that is what the Personal Genome Project offers," he told reporters in London, comparing the approach to a genetic version of Wikipedia.

Do you want the world to know Gran has Alzheimer's

A genome is a read-out of a person's entire genetic information. But free access to this information could have staggering ramifications.

A genomic reading could for instance reveal the presence of undetected diseases, or an increased risk of developing a condition such as Alzheimer's. Then there's the possibility that technology might allow the malicious use of DNA data.

Volunteers will be warned about the implications for their own privacy and that of their families, says Stephan Beck, professor of medical genomics at the UCL Cancer Institute and director of the British project.

To enrol, participants will have to be at least 18 in age and pass an online exam to make sure they understand the risks and benefits. After getting an analysis of their genome, they will also have a four-week "cooling off" period before deciding whether they want their data to go online.

Beck told reporters he expected to sequence 50 people's genomes - the 3 billion chemical pairings that make up human DNA - within the first year.

Since the first human-genome map was unveiled in 2000, some 25,000 people around the world have had their genomes sequenced - but just a fraction of this genetic information is publicly available for all scientists to scrutinize.

In the United States, Church has signed up some 3,000 volunteers for his open-access project, with a few hundred more in Canada, although only around 200 full genomes have yet been sequenced. He predicted genome sequencing will speed up as the cost continues to fall dramatically - it has come down from $1 billion 20 years ago to a few thousand dollars today.

Human HeLa cells: The DNA is marked with cyan blue dye.Credit: AP