Identifying the role genes play in heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases will become easier, thanks to a dramatic expansion of a "biobank" that by 2012 will house DNA from 500,000 people. The expansion of the bank, located at Kaiser Permanente's Northern California Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., is being made possible by a $8.6 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The new funds will also enable researchers to collect data on people's environments, such as their exposure to toxins and poor air quality, as well as living environment aspects such as the number of parks and green areas near them. Scientists can then use these data to uncover common genetic markers for certain diseases—or rule out a genetic basis—and to prescribe targeted medication and lifestyle and environmental changes for people who are susceptible to some of these diseases.

"The more we know about the causes of disease, the greater our ability to provide effective treatment," says Catherine Schaefer, PhD, an epidemiologist and Kaiser researcher.

—M. Price