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UK must embrace genomics or face medicines “dark age”

Life sciences minister George Freeman calls for NHS to embrace new data and technology

George Freeman is the UK's life sciences minister

George Freeman is the UK's life sciences minister 

The UK's NHS is at the forefront of a revolution in genomics medicines that could have a huge impact on the lives of people genetic conditions, according to the country's life sciences minister George Freeman.

“We stand on the cusp of a once in a generation chance to maximise the potential of innovation in UK healthcare,” said Freeman, who was speaking at the Astellas Innovation Debate in London on January 29.

Freeman said the Government's aim is to make the NHS the first mainstream health system in the world that offers genomic medicine as part of routine care for its patients.

The data compiled using this approach would enable the UK to lead research into new cures for cancer and other genetic disorders, new diagnostics and new uses for existing medicines, according to Freeman.

However, many people have concerns about the ethical implications of collecting DNA information in this way and the minister acknowledged the government and its supporters have a lot to do to get the public on its side. 

“If we get it wrong, if we fail to convince patients, the public and the media of the medical benefit [of genomics medicine] we risk condemning ourselves to a slow lane of dark age medicine,” he said.

DNA mapping on the NHS

The UK's work in the area is led by Genomics England, an organisation set up by the Government in 2013. Its main task at the moment is to map the DNA of 100,000 patients with cancers and rare genetic conditions by 2017.

Freeman described the £300m project as the “NASA of genomic medicine” that will allow genomic information to be combined with NHS medical records to create a unique “reference library” for researchers.

“The richness of that dataset can help us understand disease and tease apart the complex relationship between our genes, what happens to us in our lives, our illnesses, our predisposition to different diseases and how different people in this room will respond to the same drug, the same disease in different ways,” said Freeman.

NHS England has also set up 11 genomics centres in the country to support the '100,000 Genomes Project' by recruiting volunteers.

The project is set to conclude at end of 2017 but Freeman said he believes these centres will help drive UK excellence in genomic research into the future.

“When the project ends we want there to be a lasting legacy,” he said.

“I hope that in 5, 10, 15 years time we will look back and say - in the same way that President Kennedy launched the US on what seem like a crazy shot for the moon and sewed the seeds for the country's leadership in technology over the next 30-40 years – that we laid the foundations for the NHS and this country's life sciences sector to unleash a revolution in 21st century healthcare.”

Article by
Thomas Meek

4th February 2015

From: Research, Healthcare



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