INVESTIGATORS: America's test tube - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: America's test tube

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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KMSP) -

Researchers from around the world come to Minnesota to study what ails us and how doctors treat those problems, and that information is leading to some life-saving discoveries.

If a price were put on the value, it might rival some of the richest companies on the planet, but there's nothing opulent about Olmsted Medical Center's research headquarters.

"It's worth billions," Dr. Barbara Yawn, research director at OMC, estimated.

To get there, a person would need to drive through a Kmart parking lot, past the Salvation Army, and around the back, by the recycling bins.

"For a long time, it was sort of a hidden treasure," said Yawn.

There's not even a sign to identify what's inside, and it's not possible for anyone off the street to walk inside -- but some of the brightest minds in medicine have walked through the door, eager to get their hands on something considered more precious than gold.

"We've got people coming from all over the world starting to realize, 'Oh, this is unusual,'" Yawn said.

The next big thing -- or the next big flop -- in health care could be discovered there. The computers housed inside are linked in to the medical records of tens of thousands of people who live in southeast Minnesota.

"I'm always amazed at how much I can find for my studies," Dr. Lilianna Rocca said.

Scientific sleuths from all over come to try and solve the health care mystery of the day, asking questions like:

- Are certain screening tests bad for you?
- Does anesthesia cause learning disabilities in children?

"You can trace down whatever happened to this patient, and it's totally confidential," Rocca explained.

Researchers are therefore able to find answers to many nagging questions simply by studying the health care histories of real people over the course of their lifetimes. Nowhere else in America are people more willing to share that information than in Olmsted County.

"Olmsted has a very stable population of people who live here for their life," Bruce Buller said.

Buller told Fox 9 News he believes his medical past could help someone's future -- and 97 percent of the county's population has the same mindset. That's how many have signed off on making their charts available, albeit anonymously, for medical research.

Buller is also one of thousands more who also volunteer to be human guinea pigs. Right now, he's enrolled in a long-term study on memory loss. It's an issue that's near and dear to him, because his wife, Greta -- a former nurse, has dementia.

"We just celebrated 56 years together," Buller said.

In order to figure out what causes memory loss and, more importantly, how to stop it, researches are tracking the health of volunteers like Buller while they age.

"That smile is who she really is," Buller told Fox 9 News.

One of the things they measure periodically is a person's walking gate. A computer checks for tiny changes that could signal the start of Alzheimer's.

"Those people who are likely to develop Alzheimer's disease have a little smaller step," Dr. Ron Petersen explained. "They are slower in their walking."

When the results from specific studies are combined with the actual health records of thousands of people, scientists start to get a clearer picture of which interventions work and which one's don't.

"We're finding that those individuals who have been physically active throughout their life have a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment, memory impairment, later in life," Petersen said.

The massive database of health records is called the REP, which stands for Rochester Epidemiology Project. It draws its information from both the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, which provide virtually all of the medical care in the region.

"We put all that data together and we're able to say, 'This is what's happening to pretty much everybody who lives in the area," Yawn said.

That information has helped researchers discover that "smoke free" workplaces cut heart attack rates by a third, and that screening children for asthma in school is of little benefit. To date, more than 2,000 studies have used REP to advance medical knowledge.

"I don't know how you can put a price tag on that," Yawn said.

Soon, however, the massive collection will be even more valuable. Along with Olmsted County, patient data from seven other counties in southeast Minnesota will be added to the mix.

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