Tohoku biobank project redraws future medical map
Some of those who lost their houses and jobs may succumb to stress-related illnesses by the massive quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. They require medical attention that is in short supply because some hospitals along with medical equipment were washed away by tsunami.
In this situation, Tohoku University in Sendai has been a center providing medical services in the region, sending doctors to check on the health conditions of residents including evacuees who still live in temporary housing.
The Tohoku region is aiming to rise again with, among other projects, a revitalization of medical care.
In order to develop “revitalization” into “innovation,” Tohoku University is compiling a large-scale database of residents' genome information and other data such as disease history to improve the medical services in the disaster-hit areas. This biobank can also help doctors outside Japan by, for example, allowing them to refer to it to study the health conditions of disaster victims.
In June 2011, Tohoku University proposed to the state its plan to create the biobank. The state accepted the proposal and is supporting the university to conduct the plan.
“Conducting health research by way of a large-scale cohort study will be very effective in protecting the health of residents,” said Fuji Nagami, a spokesman for the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organization. “We can also develop next-generation medicine by using the research results.”
The university established the organization in February 2012 to conduct a cohort study for 120,000 Miyagi Prefecture residents and 30,000 people in Iwate Prefecture in collaboration with Iwate Medical University from April this year.
Data collected in the cohort study will increase the chance of identifying genes causing diseases typically observed among disaster victims, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, cardiovascular diseases and allergic diseases. Also, it is known that some of these symptoms may appear two or three years after a disaster.
Identifying genes causing such cases would enable prediction of diseases, which could make a large contribution to medicine in Tohoku, he said.
“As a municipal government, it is great that residents who agree to cooperate (in providing genome information) will be receiving long-term, detailed health checks,” said Takao Suzuki of the health promotion section of the Iwanuma city government in Miyagi Prefecture.
Concretely, the biobank project involves taking blood and urine samples, asking residents to fill out questionnaires regarding their own and their family's disease history, and conducting other research. The organization will integrate the information into a database while promising to protect the anonymity of those involved.
The organization will be “very careful” in securing the privacy of genome information, Nagami said.
“We are not sure how difficult it is to gain the cooperation of as many as 150,000 people,” he said. “We will try hard, by holding symposiums and doing other activities, to raise awareness and help people understand the benefits of participating.”
Of the 150,000 researched in the cohort study, 70,000 will be in the “three-generation cohort” category, in which the organization will track medical records of families across three generations, the last of which will be tracked from birth.
The organization will share the biobank with medical research institutes around the world to help realize next-generation medicine, such as custom-made prevention and treatment of diseases for individual patients.
“Europe and America are ahead in the area of biobanks,” Nagami said. “But building a large-scale biobank in Japan or Asia, where the genetic background is different, will be an essential foundation for research and cutting-edge medicine.”
Revitalization of local medicine
Tohoku's doctors and people in the medical industry will never forget that they could not provide proper medical services in the wake of the tsunami partly because medical data was washed away, one of the factors prompting Tohoku University to build the biobank, Nagami said.
“We are trying to contribute to the revitalization of local medicine,” Nagami said. “The revitalization of Tohoku cannot be complete without it.”
By conducting the cohort study to build the biobank, the organization will create jobs for people such as doctors and clinical research coordinators who have lost their occupations after the tsunami. In Miyagi alone, more than 100 doctors and about 500 staff in the medical industry lost their jobs as six hospitals were destroyed.
Also, sharing the biobank with Tohoku doctors will increase the quality of medicine in Tohoku and equalize the quality from urban areas to remote areas, Nagami said.
Produced by The Japan Times