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Province-wide blood collection program helps fight disease

By Dianne Cornish • REVIEW STAFF

Blood samples from Hamilton area residents and from people in other communities across Ontario are being collected as the Ontario Health Study (OHS) enters its next phase of groundbreaking research designed to help scientists understand the complex factors behind chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

The blood collection program targets adults aged 18 and up, who now number about 250,000, who have volunteered to take part in the long-term online health study aimed at a better understanding of chronic diseases, what causes them and how best to respond to them.

“Over the next four years, about 70,000 Ontarians will give blood,” to help with the research, said Dr. Lyle Palmer, executive scientific director of the OHS, which recently opened its first Assessment Centre in Toronto. Palmer hopes other groups, such as the Canadian Renal Foundation and Heart and Stroke Foundation, will supply additional funding so that even more Ontarians can participate in the program.

OHS recently partnered with LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services to collect and test the samples provided, at this stage, by a select number of participants who have completed the questionnaire at www.OnarioHealthStudy.ca. The questionnaire, which takes about 40 minutes to complete, asks participants to provide information about health-related subjects such as personal and family medical history, where they live and details about their lifestyle and diet.

Those who receive an invitation to take part in the blood collection program were asked to go to the study’s website to download a requisition form, which they can take to any one of 120 LifeLabs locations, including two in Hamilton, 206 James Street South and 989 Fennell Ave. East.

Dr. Palmer said the samples will be tested in a variety of ways, including a look at its biomarkers for diabetes, its proteins and hormone levels to help predict chronic diseases and DNA which will be extracted for genetic research. Overall, the program will help provide “better diagnostic and prognostic tests for chronic diseases,” he said.

Individual information from the blood tests will be shared with participants through their recently established, personalized homepages at https://ontariohealthstudy.ca/en/your-personal-home-page. The homepages, which feature health information based on the answers provided by study participants to the questionnaire, are unique among population-based health studies internationally.

“Based on someone’s questionnaire profile, we can alert that person to relevant health information, such as diabetes management plans and cancer screening programs,” the OHS’s executive scientific director said. “This is something we’ve never been able to do before–not just collect information in a way that’s cost effective, but deliver personalized healthcare information to people through an online portal.”

The online survey is still accessible to Ontarians interested in taking part in the long-term study. “Because the whole thing is done online, we can still recruit people,” Dr. Palmer explained. The ongoing research project has its sights set on attracting up to one million Ontarians, about 10 per cent of the province’s population.

The study follows people over their entire lifespan and involves follow-up questionnaires, the first of which will roll out in January 2013, with a focus on mental health. Future follow-up questionnaires will look at diet and nutrition, physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

The newly opened Assessment Centre in Toronto paves the way for individual testing. Over a three-month period, about 30 people will visit the centre each day to undergo testing of their grip strength, blood measure and heart and lung function. Data collected will help the OHS reach its goals of better understanding, preventing and treating chronic disease.

About two per cent of residents in the Hamilton/Brantford region are participating in the study, but researchers are hoping up to 10 per cent of the area’s population will eventually become involved. “The opportunity of the study is enormous and the larger the pool of participants, the richer our research insights and outcomes will be,” said Dr. Palmer during an interview in April.

Launched in September 2010, the OHS involves 340 research scientists. All data collected will be provided at no cost to health researchers to help in their efforts to treat and prevent disease.

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