A new study hopes to prevent disease before it starts through genetics

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HURRICANE — What would life be like if you knew you would get cancer one day, but could prevent it beforehand? Clinicians in Utah are hoping to accomplish just that through a new study.

One St. George man said he's participating for the health of his posterity.

Durward Wadsworth, 76, grew up on a farm in Southern Utah. He worked alongside his family tending to the fruits trees, horses, and other animals.

"We had to milk cows and bring hay in," he said.

The farm has remained, but things have changed.

"I have a brother that passed away. I have a sister that passed away,” Wadsworth said.

They both died from cancer. Wadsworth was also diagnosed with colon cancer and finished chemo only a year ago.

“It's not a fun treatment,” he said. He went to the Dixie Regional Cancer Center for 12 rounds of chemo.

As a teenager Wadsworth was exposed to radiation during nuclear testing at the Nevada National Security Site.

"As kids, we didn't know any different, so we would go up on the hill and watch when one would explode and you could actually see the mushroom and hear the boom,” he said.

Both his family history of cancer and heart disease, and his exposure to radiation, had him concerned.

His son encouraged him to participate in Intermountain Healthcare's HerediGene population study. Clinicians hope this study, in collaboration with deCODE Genetics of Iceland, will help them better understand the human genome.

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Dr. Lincoln Nadauld, Chief of Precision Health at Intermountain Healthcare, said the study is unprecedented. He said it looks at the link between genes and human disease.

"This study is the largest of its kind. It's an attempt to map the genomes of 500,000 people over the next five years,” Nadauld said. “There is no genetic study in health care that has ever been reported or ever attempted that compares in size or scope.”

Nadauld said this study will impact generations to come.

“(It) will allow us and subsequent generations to better understand health and the origins of disease and health care-related issues,” he said. “It's going to change the way that we deliver health care for the better.”

Nadauld hopes the study will help doctors better predict and prevent disease before someone is ill.

“So let's intervene with either a medicine or a lifestyle change so that you never have to experience heart failure or heart attack or a stroke,” he explained.

While this type of precision genomics started in oncology, Nadauld said his team has applied it to all of their medical disciplines, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic issues and even mental illness.

“This study could uncover the link between mental illness and genes, and could identify new treatments for mental illness,” he said.

Even though Wadsworth still has a lot of life to live, he knows he probably won't personally benefit from the study by the time it’s completed. "But, you know, my posterity will benefit,” he said.

That's enough motivation for him. Wadsworth said he doesn't want his five children and 18 grandchildren to suffer through cancer like he did.

"We want the best health care for them,” he said. He also hopes they'll carry on the family farm.

Nadauld said the study isn't just for people who have been sick, but will include mostly healthy individuals.

He said it just takes a simple blood draw to participate. Nadauld said by the end of the year there will be 25 different walk-in clinics across the entire state.

Nadauld said he anticipates a very small percentage of the participants will be informed of a health issue, in which doctors and patients need to take action.

“We expect that will happen in about 3% of our participants,” he said.


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