The UK's Department of Health is to invest £4.5 million into a new scheme aimed at improving NHS scientists' training in genetics. By giving scientists a ‘broader' schooling, they will be better placed to advise doctors on which DNA tests might be suitable, and what to make of the results. Part of the process may include sitting in on doctor-patient consultations.
More and more, genomics is playing an informative role in medical diagnoses and prognoses, requiring a greater understanding of the genetic ‘language'. Furthermore, the increase in availability of direct-to-customer genetic tests for common diseases demands that customers understand the service they are buying. In this latter case, given that the majority of gene variant associations described to date transpire to confer only little increase in risk for individuals (1.1 to 1.5-fold), the relevance of tests should be made clear. Genetic sequencing company 23andMe currently offers partial sequencing (550,000 DNA base pairs, that's less than two per cent of the total genome) for $399, providing risk values for 116 diseases or traits. Some scientists predict that entire genome sequencing services will on offer for under £1,000 within the next couple of years. The current price is just under £30K.
Last month, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee issued a report based on an in-depth review into recent advances in genomics. The report called for an update of the government's 2003 Genetics White Paper, as scientific advances have increased the potential applications of genomics to ‘patient care across the NHS'. The report advised the prompt reform of NHS training and infrastructure.
In response, Professor Susan Hill, Chief Scientific Officer for the Department of Health, said to the Times: ‘We need scientists who are more clinically trained, so they can work with the changing and diffuse nature of genetics. Genetic scientists may actually start to sit in clinics with medics and play a key role, explaining to patients what the results are showing. This isn't about scientists replacing medics, it's about working together in a team'.
The NHS employs 53,000 scientists and technicians in England alone. From now on, laboratory trainees will study more genetics, whilst a new master's degree in clinical science and genetics will be used to train specialists. The pilot scheme will commence in October, with the establishment of a national School of Genetics in the West Midlands, prior to being introduced nationally. Initial funding provides training posts for 12 trainee ‘Healthcare Science Practitioners' and 12 ‘Healthcare Scientists in Genetics'.
Val Davison, clinical director of the West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory, said that the ‘new' scientists will be ‘patient focused and medically focused, who can interpret the genetic testing. It is moving genetics into the community'.