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 said.
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.
“This agreement will see the UK lead the world in genetic research within years”
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.
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.
“As our plan becomes a reality, I believe we will be able to transform how devastating diseases are diagnosed and treated in the NHS and across the world, while supporting our best scientists and life science businesses to discover the next wonder drug or breakthrough technology.”
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 drug companies having access to the 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 medicine.
“It’s actually happening now, in small ways,” he said at a news briefing in London. “If you go into a hospital with lung cancer, for instance, that cancer will be sequenced.
“Twenty years from now academics and industry will have developed therapies which will be targeted at you and specific forms of cancer,” he said.
“We will look back in 20 years time and the blockbuster chemotherapy drugs that gave you all those nasty side effects will be a thing of the past.”
The genomes to be sequenced will be split evenly between cancer and rare diseases. Included on the cancer list so far are breast, bowel, ovarian, lung, prostate and leukaemia.
Currently results from first cancer patients contributing their DNA are taking months to come through. Once the project is fully under way the process is expected to take no more than two weeks.
The rapid progress of whole genome sequencing has been made possible by dramatic technology-driven reductions in its cost, now down to less than £1,000.
In comparison, the total cost of the Human Genome Project, which published the first public draft of the human genetic code in 2003, was estimated at just under £2bn.
The 100,000 Genomes Project puts the NHS at the forefront of cutting edge scientific research.
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..
“The NHS’ comparative advantage in unlocking patient benefits from the new genomic revolution stems from our unique combination of a large and diverse population, with universal access to care, multi-year data that spans care settings, world-class medicine and science, and an NHS funding system that enables upstream investment in prevention and new ways of working,” he said.
Illumina won the contract to provide technology for the project after a “bake-off” test in which companies around the world were sent DNA samples to sequence.
It was one of only two out of six that passed the test, the other being Complete Genomics, which is also US-based.
Jay Flatley, chief executive of Illumina, said: “This project confirms the UK as a leader in the global race to implement genomic technology and create a lasting legacy for patients, the NHS and the UK economy.”