A project aiming at revolutionising medicine by unlocking DNA is under way in medical centres across the UK.

The first genetic codes of people with cancer or rare diseases, out of a have already been sequenced.

Medical experts believe it will lead to developing new drugs which are designed for the individual and could make aggressive therapies like chemotherapy “a thing of the past”.

They say that possessing a deep understanding of human DNA will soon play a role in every aspect of medicine from cancer to cardiology.

For example tumours are caused by mutations in DNA which lead to abnormal cells growing unchecked. Drugs will be able to be developed which may check these mutations.

Advances in genetics have shown that breast cancer is not one disease but at least ten – each with a different cause, life expectancy and needing a different type of treatment.

The four-year 100,000 genomes project, run by Genomics England, which was set up for the purpose, is aiming to make such breakthroughs on a large scale.

Pilots of the project have already been set up at medical centres across England – including sites in Newcastle, Cambridge and London.

The project has passed the 100 mark, with the aim of reaching 1,000 by the end of the year and 10,000 by the end of 2015.

Just one human genome contains more than three billion base pairs – the building blocks of DNA.

Once the mapping process is finished, scientists will be looking for subtle differences between genetic codes which lead to disease that researchers believe can fuel the next big breakthroughs.

The genome of a patient’s tumour will be scoured for differences with the genetic code of their healthy tissue.
People with rare diseases, usually children, will have their DNA compared with that of close relatives. It has been reported that at least fifteen thousand families with rare diseases will take part in the project.

Sir John Chisholm, executive chair of Genomics England, said: “In Britain we were the discoverers of the structure of DNA, we were huge players in the human genome project and now the time has come for the next major step forward.
“One hundred thousand sequences is a very large step; it’s a huge commitment.”

Genomics England will be based at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, which is already a world-recognised centre of genetics research.

University scientists and a drug companies will be allowed to access the data for their research.

Prof Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “I can see a future where genetics is going to come into every bit of medicine from cardiology to oncology to infectious diseases.”

He said there were already targeted therapies for some breast, lung, bowel and blood cancers.

“Twenty years from now there’s going to be a plethora of those, we will have a series of mutations which academics and industry will have developed therapies for, which will be targeted at you and specific for that cancer.”

He said chemotherapy, which attacks all dividing cells in the body, would be replaced with such therapies.

“We will look back in 20 years’ time and think of blockbuster chemotherapy [as] a thing of the past and we’ll think ‘Gosh, what an era that was’.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has said it “will see the UK lead the world in genetic research within years”.

David Cameron has announced a series of investments across government, industry and charities totalling £300m.
He said: “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.

“I believe we will be able to transform how devastating diseases are diagnosed and treated in the NHS and across the world.”

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens 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, building on our long track record as the nation that brought humanity antibiotics, vaccines, modern nursing, hip replacements, IVF, CT scanners, and breakthrough discoveries from the circulation of blood to the existence of DNA.”