New Strategy launched to secure UK’s position as world-leader in genomics

On 26 September, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock announced the launch of a new global-leading genomic strategy to combat COVID-19.

The new strategy called genome UK: the future of healthcare, will offer UK patients the best possible preventative, predictive and personalised care with the use of advanced genome sequencing. The strategy highlights the ways the NHS, researchers, technology and genomic science can work together to create a world-leading genomic healthcare system.

There are 3 key areas on which the strategy focuses:

  1. Personalised diagnosis and medicine for patients will be made possible with the use of genomic technologies by identifying the causes of rare and infectious diseases and cancer.
  2. Genomics will be used to prevent diseases by accurately predicting whether certain areas and populations are susceptible to diseases. This will allow early interventions and prevent illness from occurring by using clinical and lifestyle interventions.
  3. More efficient research collaborations will benefit the healthcare system and patients by sharing data and insuring the highest standards are met.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said:

“Genomics has the potential to transform the future of healthcare by offering patients the very best predictive, preventative and personalised care.

“The UK is already recognised around the world as a global leader in genomics and this strategy will allow us to go further and faster to help patients right here in our NHS and give them the best possible chance against a range of diseases.

“The UK is using its expertise in genomics right now to advance our understanding of COVID-19, develop new treatments and help us protect the most vulnerable”.

Matt Hancock has called on those who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate blood so that the study can examine the genetic susceptibility of the virus. This will help researchers determine what factors affect those who test positive but don’t have to be hospitalised, versus those that do.

The University of Edinburgh will be sequencing the genomes of more than 20,000 people who were very ill and in ICU with COVID-19 and compare it to 15,000 people who had coronavirus symptoms but were not in need of hospitalisation.

The study will also compare the backgrounds of the various groups of people to determine if the various variations in genetic makeup have an effect on how ill someone gets, which will help scientists discover more effective treatments and protect those who are at most risk in future  outbreaks.

Chris Wigley, CEO of Genomics England, said:

“This is an important moment for genomic healthcare in Britain. With the launch of Genome UK, we are a step closer to a future where genomics can improve everyone’s health and wellbeing, based on the latest scientific discoveries.

“Genomics England continues to focus our efforts on enabling genomic healthcare to help doctors diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses, and accelerating genomic research by providing the health data and advanced technology researchers need to make new discoveries and create more effective medicines.

“The speed at which everyone has come together to work collaboratively on this study demonstrates how significant genomic sequencing is in population health today. We now have a team of the best scientific minds and tech experts all working together at tremendous pace, to analyse the genomic data we have gathered. This work will help us to understand why the virus affects people in different ways, which will potentially allow us to personalise treatment, discover new therapies, save lives – and even prevent future outbreaks”.

The study is looking for people who closely match the ethnicities and age groups of those that were hospitalised, especially those aged 68 and above. This will give them more data to determine what the genetic differences are within these groups and find treatments accordingly.

Dr Kenneth Baillie from the Roslin Institute, at the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the study, said:

“When we see patients dying of Covid-19, doctors and nurses in intensive care units often ask – why them? Why did this person become desperately sick, while other similar people are relatively unscathed? We know that this is partly due to genetics. More importantly, we know that if we can find the specific genes that are responsible, in some cases, that can lead us to new treatments.

“The GenOMICC study was built with funding from patients and their relatives (the FEAT charity), and it owes everything to the patients and their relatives who decide to participate in research to help others, at one of the most difficult times in their lives”.

Professor Dame Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer and Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics in the NHS, said:

“The NHS will play a key role in delivering the ambitious vision set out in the National Genomics Healthcare Strategy through the NHS Genomic Medicine Service (GMS). The seven GMS Alliances across England will ensure cutting edge genomics drive improvements in prevention, diagnosis and treatment and deliver faster and improved outcomes for patients. Clinical care will be aligned to enable the broader data and research ambitions to realise the full potential of the NHS and this new strategy allows the UK to continue to be a world-leader in genomics”.

Lord Prior, Chairman of NHS England, said:

“Genomics is the new frontier for the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of inherited disease. It has the potential to change fundamentally the traditional model of healthcare delivery”.

Professor Sir Rory Collins, Principal Investigator and Chief Executive of UK Biobank, said:

“I’m delighted to join the National Genomics Board and to help enhance the UK’s position as a global leader in genomics. Genetic analysis of all 500,000 volunteers in the UK Biobank project has enabled researchers to show just how important genetic information can be for identifying individuals at increased risk of the most common chronic diseases, in particular cardiovascular disease and different types of cancer.

“This information is already starting to be used to help improve prevention and treatment strategies within the NHS. I’m confident that the genetic data in UK Biobank will identify many more ways to improve the health of the public as part of the National Genomic Healthcare Strategy”

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