Health Care Quarterly:

Healthy Nevada Project is studying the strands of our DNA

It started with a cup of coffee.

In 2016, Dr. Tony Slonim, Renown Health’s president and CEO, sat down for coffee with Dr. Joseph Grzymski, a computational biologist at the Desert Research Institute, to discuss the connection between science and health care. Understanding the importance of preventive care and seeing the emerging access to personal health data through low-cost DNA tests, their conversation led to a question — could this be a new path toward treating illness and disease prior to diagnosis? Using the advanced science and growing popularity of personal DNA tests, they recognized that by working together they could apply these new tools to decrypt health predispositions and better understand risks for disease encoded in the genes of Nevadans.

Fast forward to 2019. The Healthy Nevada Project, which allows people to get no-cost DNA testing, has become the fastest-growing community-based population health study in the world. The goals of the project are to improve health literacy, give patients actionable personal health data and results that foster a desire to lead healthier lives, improve medical research and save lives in Nevada.

The road to wellness

The Healthy Nevada Project initially launched in 2016 in Reno, offering 5,000 openings to participants as part of a collaboration between Renown and DRI. The community response was so favorable that the openings filled within 24 hours. Renown and DRI opened another 5,000 testing spots that filled the next day with people eager to volunteer to submit their DNA for analysis as part of the study.

In March 2018, Renown and DRI launched Phase II of the project with an additional 40,000 openings and a new partnership with Helix, one of the largest accredited sequencing labs in the nation. They also expanded their geographical reach to other parts of Nevada, including Carson City, Elko, Tonopah, Winnemucca, Lovelock, Silver Springs, and more.

Now, the Healthy Nevada Project has offered free testing to people in Las Vegas and Clark County with 25,000 additional slots now available for interested participants. UMC has provided three testing facilities across the valley where participants can receive genetic testing at no cost — its urgent care clinics located at Blue Diamond, Centennial Hills and Rancho.

“For the first time, we are providing information at the individual level so study volunteers can make lifesaving changes to reduce their risk based on their genetics,” said Slonim. “We’re also doing it on the community level to develop leading-edge research on health determinants for entire neighborhoods, states and eventually, the country.”

The Healthy Nevada Project requires those interested in testing to spit saliva into a sample tube and submit it for analysis. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes, with most of the time spent going through the three-step patient security, confidentiality and consent process.

Once the tube of saliva is collected, the DNA is analyzed by Helix. Helix uses a proprietary method to sequence the part of our genome that codes for the proteins that tell our bodies how to function. Once the saliva sample is tested, patients have access to their results where they can learn more about their health, including how they interact with coffee consumption, their body mass index, saturated fat, vitamin D and calcium levels, as well as their ability to tolerate lactose and gluten. The Healthy Nevada Project also identifies the participant’s regional ancestry, offering a historical breakdown to explain where they came from.

A population health research team at DRI, the environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, then reviews de-identified project participant results, looking for Centers for Disease Control’s Tier 1 genetic conditions.

Participants with these genetic markers have a higher risk of developing serious illnesses including heart disease, breast, ovarian, colorectal, and other cancers. Those who test positive for these genes receive genetic counseling and can use their results to begin preventive care by their primary care provider. Tier 1 genetic conditions include familial hypercholesterolemia (which affects cholesterol), BRCA 1 & 2 (which is related to breast cancer), and Lynch syndrome (a genetic predisposition toward certain cancers).

“We are returning clinically actionable results so Nevadans can reduce their risks for often preventable but serious disease,” said Michele Frankovich, administrative director of the Healthy Nevada Project. “Our goals are to educate our community on how genetics and our environment influence our health so we can make informed health choices that help us prevent illness and disease proactively.”