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UK pushes whole genome sequencing into clinical practice

Up to 100,000 patients with cancers and rare diseases in the United Kingdom will have their genomes sequenced as part of a huge effort to drive cutting-edge medical science into the health-care system, and feed results back to scientists. In an announcement today, prime minister David Cameron said that £100 million (US$161 million) of National Health Service (NHS) funds had been earmarked for the project.

A number of teams are already sequencing patients’ entire genomes in order to better tailor treatments for diseases such as cancer (see ‘Sequencing set to alter clinical landscape‘). But a project on this scale, and so integrated into a health-care system, is unprecedented.

“This new plan will mean we are the first country in the world to use DNA codes in the mainstream of the health service,” said Cameron in a statement. “By unlocking the power of DNA data, the NHS will lead the global race for better tests, better drugs and above all better care.”

The government’s department of health says that it hopes to have contracts in place to carry out the whole-genome sequencing — which may involve the private sector — by April 2014. Capacity to sequence 100,000 whole genomes at “diagnostic quality” should be in place in three to five years. The money earmarked for this initiative will also be used to train researchers working on genetics for drug development and medical use, and to build the computer systems to manage the flood of DNA data. Exactly how the anonymized data will be collected and stored has not yet been determined.

Today’s announcement builds on the work of the Human Genomics Strategy Group, chaired by University of Oxford medical researcher Sir John Bell, which recommended in January that NHS patients should have increased access to genomic tests, and that a central data storage facility should be set up for genomic data.

“I’m pretty pleased with this result,” he told Nature. “This is the first health-care system that’s committed to whole-genome sequencing, especially at this scale. What’s interesting about this is it will be used in clinical practice. It is really going to be used in a real health-care setting.”

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    Michael Lerman said:

    This is a magnificent project. The sequencing of 100,000 tumors is the easy part, the analysis of the sequences will take more time, effort, monies, and may result in the identification of new drug targets and subsequently new «wonder» drugs. However, the data accumulated in the past 5-10 years showed that neither «smart drugs» alone or in combination with «old» cytotoxic drugs did indeed improve the treatment of cancer. What we got is a lot of «smoke but no light» (Nature Editorial, 2007). Cancer therapeutics based on early detection of non-metastatic disease using the liquid biopsy method followed by classical curative treatments (surgery, radiation) is a practical approach taken by a leading USA oncologist, Bert Vogelstein. Accordingly, achieving early diagnosis will bring us close to curing cancer. Michael Lerman, M.D., Ph.D.

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