A new NHS DNA project could help “unlock a series of secrets about devastating diseases and help find cures”, the NHS says.

The world-first scheme is opening 11 Genomics Medicine Centres within NHS hospitals in February to help gather DNA information of 100,000 patients to devise targeted treatments for a wide range of degenerative diseases.
The NHS said it was aiming to be the most scientifically advanced healthcare system in the world, initially with the project focusing on targeting cancer and rare genetic diseases.

The project that has already started recruiting patients earlier this year aims to sequence 100,000 genomes (full genetic code) within three years in order to facilitate faster diagnosis, spot indications of appropriate ‘personalised’ treatments and the development of tests and drugs.
NHS England medical director Prof Bruce Keogh said the impact of genomic medicine will be on the same scale as other British successes including the smallpox vaccine and IVF.
He said: “Our NHS is better equipped for the emerging science that will determine the future practice of medicine than any other Western healthcare system.
“It puts the UK in a position to unlock a series of secrets about devastating diseases, which have remained hidden for centuries, for the whole of human kind.”

For cancer, the aim of the project is to target treatments at the precise mutations in DNA that are causing a patient’s tumour by comparing their genome with that of healthy tissue.

Thousands of genetic diseases – which are individually rare but combined affect large numbers of people – could be identified by finding mistakes in the three billion pairs of letters that make up our genetic code.

With the scheme already underway 3,000 genomes will have been sequenced by January 2015. When volunteering for the scheme patients are then giving their consent for their DNA to be stored for pharmaceutical companies and researchers to help them create precision drugs for future generations.

Also in the long term it will mean such companies will be able to do so quicker and cheaper through better understanding of the diseases.

The patients involved will remain anonymous as all of the data produced in the project will be stripped of anything that could identify the patient before it is made available to these parties.

In medical circles the project looks set for revolutionary proportions if it succeeds in all its ambitions. Life sciences minister George Freeman said: “We want to make the UK the best place in the world to design and discover 21st century medicines.”

The full success of this project in particular may reside with its wider implementation. Angela Douglas, chairwoman of the British Society of Genetic Medicine, said: “The challenge of the project will be to embed its outcomes into routine health practice.

“The genetics community looks forward to working with researchers, scientists, associated medical specialists and Genomics England to meet that challenge.”

The first 11 Genomic Medicines Centres to open in February are:

  • Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust
  • Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, London
  • Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
  • Oxford University Hospitals Foundation Trust
  • Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London
  • Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London