The DNA bank isn't funded yet, but the university announced Tuesday that it would work with a well-known database company, First Genetic Trust Inc., to develop the project.
The goal is to gather samples from 25,000 people over five years, mostly patients at hospitals associated with the historically black university in the nation's capital.
The planned program is one of several projects under way around the country to study genetic differences among certain populations.
Research shows the DNA sequence of any two people is 99.9 percent alike, regardless of race. But subtle variations in genetic structure, called polymorphisms, can greatly affect an individual's risk of disease.
The National Institutes of Health already has begun a $100 million effort to identify disease-causing polymorphisms, called the International HapMap Project. It is analyzing genetic patterns in blood samples taken from people in Nigeria, Japan and China and from people of northern and western European ancestry in the United States.
While that and many other gene-tracing projects under way will include DNA from multiple populations, Howard's planned DNA bank would focus just on black Americans — and largely those who have asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer or obesity, conditions Howard already is researching.
Howard has experience with such genetic studies, working with the NIH on smaller projects hunting genetic clues for why black Americans are at greater risk for some of those diseases. Howard also is spearheading an international study hunting for genetic clues to diabetes in Nigeria, Ghana and the United States.
Lots of research on diseases that strike minorities disproportionately has focused on income and other social differences, noted Georgia Dunston, director of Howard's National Human Genome Center. New genetics tools will allow researchers now to see how genetic vulnerabilities interact with social conditions to spur disease, she explained.