That's the kind of thing Dan Arking is looking at now, without the use of the giant VA database. He's an associate professor in the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine in Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Typically, large studies now involve groups of about 10,000 to 15,000 pooled from 10 to 20 sources. He's seen other countries attempt to create such large databases as the VA, but this is the largest he knows of in the United States.
Arking said that in addition to common diseases, the databank will be useful for rare ones because it's often tough to find enough people to study.
Limiting the databank to VA-affiliated researchers is a drawback for scientists like Arking, who has no relationship with the veterans department but has developed novel methodology and tools to study diseases —in his case autism and sudden cardiac death. He hopes the VA makes it easy to identify and partner with the proper researchers.
For example, Arking and his colleagues have identified some genes related to sudden cardiac death, which kills up to 250,000 people a year and generally has no obvious warning signs. But if all the right variants can be identified for those most likely to die, doctors can single them out for an expensive implanted defibrillator.
"Prevention in this case is major surgery, so we need to do a better job of risk assessment before we intervene," he said.
He added: "It's an exciting time to be doing genomic research. If everything comes together with the databank, there will be an incredible amount of new discoveries to come out of this."
Vets who would like to volunteer, can go to http://www.research.va.gov/mvp/ for more information or call 866-441-6075.