The world’s 7 “blue zones” are known for their rates of centenarians – older people who live remarkably long, healthy lives. Although Australia is not one of them, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has worked with collaborators to gather data from more than 4000 of the nation’s oldest, fittest and most healthy, in hopes of finding clues about the cause, and prevention of cancer.

Late last year, Garvan launched the Medical Genome Reference Bank (MGRB) – the first worldwide database, to gather the entire genetic sequence of thousands of healthy older people.

Garvan hopes that by looking at genetic and environmental clues on why some people may lead long, healthy lives – and why some people might not – we can find out more about how to prevent cancer.

Each of us harbours millions of ‘variants’ within our DNA. These are places in our genome sequence where we differ from others. Most variants have little impact, but some drive disease, and a major challenge for genomic cancer medicine medicine is to understand which is which.

Genetic expression holds clues

Beyond just a person’s genetic information, the MGRB houses information about the person’s height, weight, age – along with other information around a person’s phenotype – or how their genetics interact with their environment.

For example, a phenotype is the expression of a person’s genetically coded hair and skin colour – and perhaps how a person with lighter hair and skin colour might be more susceptible to skin cancer.

Because the MGRB contains only the DNA of older people who are still healthy, it is expected to be relatively free of variants associated with disease. This makes it a powerful filter, or ‘control’, for accelerating genomic discovery in medical research. In addition, it will aid in the diagnosis of genetic disease and may shed light on mechanisms of healthy aging.

DreamLab, the Vodafone Foundation app which is helping Garvan and other worldwide research institutes to speed up the pace of their research, is furthering this important work through Project Demystify, which uses phenotypic information derived from both clinical information and wearable devices like FitBits.

This project, like all DreamLab projects, uses the power of thousands of citizen scientists worldwide to crunch research data, speeding up the pace of the research and furthering important discoveries.

Recently, the UK research institute Imperial College discovered, through DreamLab’s Project DRUGS, that several different food types contained anti-cancer molecules that could potentially be harnessed and repurposed to target cancer cells.

The future of the MGRB, and their related research into phenotypic impacts on cancer is similarly hopeful.

Professor David Thomas (Garvan Institute of Medical Research), who co-leads the MGRB project, says, “The Medical Genome Reference Bank can tell us much about what it means to grow old but remain well, and is a powerful tool to help us deconstruct the genetics of common diseases.”

Terms and conditions

DreamLab Terms and conditions: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.

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