£300m plan to map disease DNA

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A “LANDMARK” project to map 100,000 complete DNA code sequences is destined to make Britain the world leader in genetic research on cancer and rare diseases, the Prime Minister has claimed.

David Cameron made the prediction as he announced a package of deals worth £300m 
that will secure the future of the work, expected to be completed by 2017.

Nothing on the scale of the 100,000 Genomes Project has ever been attempted anywhere before.

Over the next four years, about 75,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases, plus their close relatives, will have their whole genetic codes, or genomes, sequenced.

Cancer patients will have the DNA of both healthy and tumour cells mapped, making up the 100,000 total.

Scientists expect the project to be pivotal to the development of future personalised treatments based on genetics, with the potential to revolutionise medicine.

A £78m partnership between Genomics England, the body set up by the Department of Health to oversee the project, and the Californian DNA sequencing technology company Illumina was unveiled by Mr Cameron yesterday.

Illumina, originally “spun out” by Cambridge University scientists, will invest around £162m into the project over its lifetime.

Mr Cameron said: “This agreement will see the UK lead the world in genetic research within years.

“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.”

The Wellcome Trust is providing £27m for the project’s operations centre near the research charity’s genome campus in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire. In addition, the Medical Research Council is contributing £24m for computer processing and the NHS £20m.

The first few hundred pilot participants in London, Cambridge and Newcastle have already donated DNA samples.

By the end of next year that figure is expected to have risen to about 10,000.

Strict confidentiality rules will be enforced and under normal circumstances, patients will not be told of unforeseen surprises that might effect their health – or insurance premiums.

But helpful findings will be fed back to the doctors in charge of their treatment.

In return, those consenting to having their DNA sequenced must agree to the drug companies having access to their information as well as academic scientists.

The researchers are looking for tiny changes in the genetic code that can trigger disease or affect its progress.

In future, this knowledge is likely to speed up the development of new and more effective targeted treatments.

One example of such a therapy that already exists is Herceptin, a drug specifically designed for women with a type of breast cancer characterised by over-activity of the Her2 gene.

Professor Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, believes genome sequencing has the potential to transform the world of medicine.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: “The NHS is now set to become one of the world’s ‘go-to’ health services for the development of innovative genomic tests and patient treatments.”