July 5, 2013 12:02 am

NHS patients set for genetic check-up

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DNA double helix.©Dreamstime

A new state-owned company, Genomics England, is to spearhead the introduction of DNA sequencing throughout the National Health Service, with an initial budget of £100m and a mission to read 100,000 patients’ individual genetic codes by 2017.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, will launch the company in a speech on Friday – marking the 65th birthday of the NHS – focusing on preparing for “a century of personalised care”.

It will be led by Sir John Chisholm, executive chairman, who has led several technology companies and state bodies including the Medical Research Council.

“Genome sequencing is already helping identify the best treatments for some cancers but there is huge potential in other areas,” Mr Hunt plans to say. “The establishment of Genomics England will provide the investment and leadership necessary to sequence genomes at scale and pace, driving down costs as it drives up the investment in a totally new sphere of science.”

Sir John sees the establishment of Genomics England as “a key infrastructure investment for the 21st century, from which will come a lot of other entrepreneurial investments”. Public-private partnerships will form an important part of its work.

The company, with its own staff and board of directors, will work closely with the private sector, including DNA sequencing companies, the pharmaceutical industry and bioinformatics companies that will help to analyse the flood of genetic data.

“There are venture funds already gearing up to invest in finding insights from DNA data that will also generate shareholder value,” said Sir John. “We hope to be working with them.”

As well as decoding human genomes, the initiative will provide the infrastructure to read the DNA of pathogens in patients with serious infections such as HIV, TB and hepatitis C. The aim is to detect mutations in viruses or bacteria that are inducing drug resistance, and to tailor treatment.

Measures to ensure patient confidentiality and data privacy will be built into the company’s structure, with an ethics committee and an ethicist on the board. Patients’ consent will be obtained before their genomes are read.

Looking further into the future, “one can conceive of a day when every baby will have its DNA sequenced as part of its clinical record”, said Sir John, although he made clear that this was not on Genomics England’s agenda.

The UK has been an international leader in the rapid technological advances in gene sequencing, which have cut the cost and time required to read the 3bn biochemical “letters” in human DNA – from several years and $1bn for the original Human Genome Project in the 1990s, to little more than $1,000 and a single day per person now.

Besides cancer, where genomics is beginning to guide the treatment of patients according to the specific DNA mutations of their tumours, one of the big early advantages for patients will be in diagnosing rare inherited conditions, which could be done in weeks rather than months, according to Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England.

Alastair Kent, who chairs the Rare Disease UK patient group, welcomed the formation of Genomics England. “Having a semi-independent but government-owned company is good because it will provide a stable long-term structure,” he said.

Elsewhere in his speech, Mr Hunt will announce that, from next year, an individual named clinician will take responsibility for every vulnerable elderly patient with complicated health needs when he or she is out of hospital.

“As a member of the public, I would like that to be my GP,” he will say. “But whoever it is, they should be named so that patients, families and carers all know where the buck stops.”

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