A project aiming to revolutionise medicine by unlocking the secrets of DNA is underway in centres across England. Prime Minister David Cameron has said it “will see the UK lead the world in genetic research within years”.
The first genetic codes of people with cancer or rare diseases, out of a target of 100,000, have been sequenced. Experts believe it will lead to targeted therapies and could make chemotherapy outdated. Just one human genome contains more than three billion base pairs – the building blocks of DNA. This four-year project is run by Genomics England and will look at 100,000 genomes. Pilots have been set up at centres across England and the first genome was sequenced on 30 May. The project has now passed the 100 genome mark, with the aim of reaching 1,000 by the end of the year and 10,000 by the end of 2015.
The genome of a patient’s tumour will be examined for differences with the genetic code of their healthy tissue. People with rare diseases, usually children, will have their DNA compared with that of close relatives. University scientists and drug companies will be allowed to access the data for their research.
Tumours are caused by mutations in DNA which lead to abnormal cells growing unchecked. Previous research has shown how varied cancers can be – for example that breast cancer is not one disease but at least 10 – each with a different cause, life expectancy and requiring a different treatment. Genetics research has helped develop targeted drugs such as Herceptin, only given if a patient’s breast tumour has a certain mutation.
Sir John Chisholm, executive chair of Genomics England, said: “In Britain we were the discoverers of the structure of DNA, we were huge players in the human genome project and now the time has come for the next major step forward. One hundred thousand sequences is a very large step; it’s a huge commitment.”
Prof Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “I can see a future where genetics is going to come into every bit of medicine from cardiology to oncology to infectious diseases.”
David Cameron has announced a series of investments across government, industry and charities totalling £300m. He said: “I am determined to do all I can to support the health and scientific sector to unlock the power of DNA, turning an important scientific breakthrough into something that will help deliver better tests, better drugs and above all better care for patients.”