Harnessing the power of Facebook to study a large, diverse genetic pool

June 18, 2019

Collecting DNA samples for human genetic studies can be an expensive, lengthy process that has often made it difficult to include diverse populations in studies of medical and health data.

University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues believe they have found a way to harness the power of social media and its ubiquitous presence to recruit a large, diverse participant pool they hope will help provide quick, reliable data for genetic studies. Their study appears in the June 13 issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.

“The ability to study very large groups of individuals is a key challenge in human genetics, which is using very rare genetic changes—each present in very few individuals—to understand human biology and health and provide leads for design of new medicines,” said senior author Gonçalo Abecasis, a professor at U-M’s School of Public Health.

Katharine Brieger, a doctoral student in public health and first author of the report, said that for studies to be relevant to a broader population, they need to include samples of a wide range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Researchers invited people to participate in the Genes for Good study through Facebook starting in January 2015. Requirements included that participants live in the U.S., have a Facebook account, and be at least 18. Most of the recruitment was done organically, with people finding the Genes for Good application through family and friends.

As of March 2019, about 117,000 people tried the app, 80,000 people had engaged with the study, 32,000 kits had been sent, and 27,000 DNA samples collected. Genotypes for the first 20,232 participants were analyzed.

Once an individual consented to the study, they were invited to complete online health history assessments, daily tracking surveys and a separate module to report additional health conditions. Once participants completed a minimum of questionnaires, they received a spit kit to collect DNA for analysis.

Participants who provided a DNA sample received a free breakdown of their genetic ancestry and were able to download their raw DNA data in a digital format to analyze on their own or share with third-party interpretation services. While taking the surveys, they were able to compare their survey responses to those of other Genes for Good participants.

Researchers said while study participants tended to be younger and more female than the U.S. population, they more closely resembled it in terms of diversity and household income than other genetic ancestry programs.

University of Michigan has the full article