Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:38 AM EDT

Researchers Utilize Facebook to Reach Larger, More Diverse Groups of People

Jun 14, 2019 09:11 AM EDT

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Researchers Utilize Facebook to Reach Larger, More Diverse Groups of People
(Photo : Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay)

According to a team of researchers in 2015, they hypothesized that our mutual love for Facebook surveys could be harnessed for severe genetic studies. Now, the Genes for Good project has engaged more than 80,000 Facebook users, collected 27,000 DNA spit-kits, and amassed a trove of health survey data on a more diverse group of participants than has previously been possible. The team noted that their app could work as a model for studies on an even larger scale. They published their work in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

The first author of the study and MD/Ph.D., student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Katharine Brieger, said that it is quite an essential step to allow participation remotely, because it opens the door to a lot of people who historically couldn't participate in genetic research, even if they had wanted to do so. Also, having a more diverse population represented in study samples is critical for moving public health and genetic research forward.

From the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Goncalo Abecasis, the senior author of the study, said that when he started genetic studies in the 90s, most reviews have a few hundred people. Typically, people in the area would show up to a university lab to answer health surveys and give a blood sample. After that, researchers had quite a costly and challenging time following up with those volunteers.

Abecasis noted that experience inspired him and his colleagues to start thinking about how to use social media to expand and improve upon their research. The result was the Genes for Good's approach. In exchange for answering surveys, participants receive a free in-home DNA spit-kit, analysis of their ancestry and DNA results, graphs and comparisons of their data, and, if requested, a file of their raw genotype information.

Then, the team analyzed the genetic data to assess the quality of the study and its data collection methods. The results of past studies have identified genetic variants connected to physical traits, such as eye color or skin tone, and health conditions such as asthma. When researchers compared results from their Genes for Good analyses to those from well-cited papers, they mostly matched.

Brieger explained that they were quite pleased with their ability to replicated the results of other extensive studies. One instance is that in their sample, they were able to identify previously reported associations between specific genetic variants and traits such as BMI, as well as conditions such as type 1 and 2 diabetes.

Abecasis concluded that what they would indeed like to do next is to use the platform to see if this is an opportunity to engage with disease foundations for targeted studies at a large scale.

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