Eleven NHS Genomic Medicine Centres (GMCs) have been announced by Genomics England. They will spearhead the 100,000 Genomes Project, which aims to decode the genomes of patients affected by cancers or rare diseases, and subsequently use this knowledge to develop better diagnostic tests and treatments for these conditions.
Professor Mark Caulfield, chief scientist for Genomics England, said the centres would bring researchers and clinicians together 'to work as part of Genomic England's Clinical Interpretation Partnership on whole genome data that has never been collected on this scale before. We have a clear goal of accelerating the findings from the programme back into mainstream healthcare at the fastest possible pace, meaning more rapid results for patients.'
The 100,000 Genomes Project will focus on the five most common cancers - breast, bowel, ovarian, lung and the commonest form of leukaemia - as well as 110 rare diseases. DNA samples collected at the GMCs will be decoded and analysed by the biotech company Illumina. The results will be returned to NHS England, where they will be validated and shared with patients. The project will cost £300million and is scheduled to run for three years.
DNA of cancer patients will be taken from the tumour sample as well as from healthy tissue and compared. For rare diseases, the project hopes to uncover the basic genetic flaws by comparing DNA from affected individuals with that of close unaffected relatives.
Talking to the Daily Mail, life sciences minister George Freeman MP seemed to imply gene therapy to be an ultimate goal for the project: 'We can move from practising one-size-fits-all medicine to beginning to do targeted, stratified, and ultimately precision and potentially preventative medicine - therapies that prevent disease rather than treating disease after it's occurred. It's a very powerful technology.'
The decoded genomes along with patients' anonymised medical records will be made available to academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies for disease and drug research. However, third parties will only be able to study and analyse the data at the GMCs, but can take away 'statistical summaries', Professor Sean Whittaker, clinical lead for south London's Genomics Network Alliance, which will become a GMC, told Channel 4 correspondent Victoria Macdonald.
During a further interview with Professor Maria Bitner-Glindzicz from the GMC based at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, presenter Jon Snow asked whether there is a danger that we will eventually reach a point where everybody is subjected to DNA profiling. Professor Bitner-Glindzicz reiterated that the purpose of the project is to gain knowledge about human genetics in health and disease, and that participation in the project is not compulsory.
The eleven GMCs are based in London (three GMCs), Cambridge, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Southampton, Birmingham and Exeter.