U.K.’s Department of Health launches DNA mapping effort

Genomics England will lead effort aimed at a better understanding of cancer, rare and infectious diseases

Lloyd Dunlap
LONDON—The government's major drive to provide personalizedhealthcare by introducing high-tech DNA mapping for patients will start bytackling cancer, rare diseases and infectious diseases, Jeremy Hunt, member ofParliament for South West Surrey and secretary of state for health, announcedon the National Health Service's 65th birthday. Previously, Prime MinisterDavid Cameron announced that the personal DNA code of up to 100,000 patients orinfections in patients will be sequenced over the next five years, "leading tobetter and earlier diagnosis and personalized care." 
 
The project will be run by Genomics England, an organizationentirely owned by the Department of Health (DH). Genomics England will managecontracts for specialist U.K.-based companies, universities and hospitals tosupply services on sequencing, data linkage and analysis. It will set standardsfor obtaining patients' consent and also strictly manage storage of personaldata in accordance with existing NHS rules designed to securely protect patientinformation. It will have the independence and clout to drive innovation acrosssystems and healthcare economies.
 
 
Marking the NHS' 65th birthday with plans to make everyelement of NHS treatment more tailored around individuals' needs, Hunt said,"The U.K. aims to become the first country to introduce this technology in itsmainstream health system—leading the global race for better tests, better drugsand above all, better, more personalized care to save lives. The NHS has a longtrack record as a leader in medical science advances, and it must continue topush the boundaries by unlocking the power of DNA data. Genomics England willprovide the investment and leadership needed to dramatically increase the useof this technology and drive costs down."
 
 
Genomics England will be funded by the DH in the mediumterm, and any surplus will be invested back into improving health. It will bechaired by former chair of the Medical Research Council, Sir John Chisholm.
 
"This project represents a great opportunity to translateour world-class genomic science into world leadership in genomic medicine.Genomics England will create a dataset of anonymized whole-genome sequencesmatched with clinical data at a scale unique in the world," Chisholm claims.
 
 
Further explaining the funding setup, the Department ofHealth's Peter Bramwell notes that "the £100m pledged by the government is forthe entire Genomics England program for the next three to five years topump-prime the initiative as the technologies develop. Genomics England willhave premises and staff, but will intentionally be an enabling organization,managing contracts, licensing access and unlocking the benefits of thesequencing. We will discuss running costs once it is fully operational, butthey will not be disproportionate to what Genomics England will deliver. Anysurplus would be generated by selling the data, but the data will be heldsecurely in the U.K., strictly protecting confidentiality in line with existingNHS arrangements. Researchers, both public and private, will need to apply fora license and access the data only via a secure data link."
 
 
The launch of Genomics England comes at a time when healthsecretary Hunt and the Tory government, led by Cameron, are under increasingpressure for their attempt to privatize the NHS. To highlight the acceleratingpace of NHS privatization, earlier this summer activists and healthprofessionals planned to descend on Farnham, in the heart of Jeremy Hunt'sSouth West Surrey constituency, to canvass local people about the threat of aprivatized NHS. According to the Guardian,"how the NHS looks at 75 depends more on the future of politics than oneconomics." The paper pointed out that the ambulance service, for example, uses10 times more private ambulances at a cost of £4 million a year, and thatbetween a quarter and a half of all community services are now run by RichardBranson's Virgin Care. To date, the government's health reforms have resultedin £7 billion in contracts to private firms such as Virgin, privateequity-owned Care U.K., Serco and Circle, the DailyMirror reports. 
 

Lloyd Dunlap

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