Genomics England launched to crack NHS genetic code

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A new organisation has been launched by the Department of Health to sequence 100,000 patient genomes and link them to electronic patient records.

Genomics England will manage contracts for specialist life science companies, offering research funding from a new £300m partnership fund.

It aims to form the new nucleus of a new genetic health sector running alongside the NHS and using its patient data.

The ambitious public-private partnership initiative could make DNA mapping a normal feature of NHS diagnosis and treatment planning.

“By 2015 the aim is to put the UK at the forefront of the genome revolution worldwide, with whole-genome sequencing linked to patient diagnosis, treatment and care,” said Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“Genomics England will provide the investment and leadership needed to dramatically increase the use of this technology and drive costs down.”

Over the next five years, companies will be contracted to sequence patient DNA codes, match them to their electronic medical records and generate anonymised data sets to promote personalised treatment.

Initially, the project will focus on lung and paediatric cancer, rare diseases and infectious diseases.

Genomics England will be chaired by the former chair of the Medical Research Council, Sir John Chisholm, and will have up to £100m Government funding to help it sequence patient genomes and build the NHS data linkage.

ABPI Chief Executive Stephen Whitehead said: “The launch of Genomics England is welcome news – I am excited about what we can achieve through regular DNA sequencing throughout the NHS.

“This important initiative will help the life sciences sector better understand the genomic make-up of patient populations, which will in turn further our understanding of disease and the way we develop medicines. Being able to link genomics with health records will strengthen the UK’s position as a leader in this field.

“It will be key to driving further research into stratified medicines – treatments tailored to those most likely to respond – and ultimately will help scientists and pharmaceutical companies create more targeted medicines to benefit patients.”

However, critics have raised concerns about possible commercial exploitation of genome data, given that patient genomes are unique and so can be used to identify and track individuals.

Edward Hockings of campaigning group Ethics and Genetics warned: “We are moving closer to the American system, in which pharmaceutical companies can buy patient data and target people with aggressive marketing.”