U.K.’s Department of Health launches DNA mapping effort
LONDON—The government's major drive to provide personalized healthcare by introducing high-tech DNA mapping for patients will start by tackling cancer, rare diseases and infectious diseases, Jeremy Hunt, member of Parliament for South West Surrey and secretary of state for health, announced on the National Health Service's 65th birthday. Previously, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the personal DNA code of up to 100,000 patients or infections in patients will be sequenced over the next five years, "leading to better and earlier diagnosis and personalized care."
The project will be run by Genomics England, an organization entirely owned by the Department of Health (DH). Genomics England will manage contracts for specialist U.K.-based companies, universities and hospitals to supply services on sequencing, data linkage and analysis. It will set standards for obtaining patients' consent and also strictly manage storage of personal data in accordance with existing NHS rules designed to securely protect patient information. It will have the independence and clout to drive innovation across systems and healthcare economies.
Marking the NHS' 65th birthday with plans to make every element of NHS treatment more tailored around individuals ' needs, Hunt said, "The U.K. aims to become the first country to introduce this technology in its mainstream health system—leading the global race for better tests, better drugs and above all, better, more personalized care to save lives. The NHS has a long track record as a leader in medical science advances, and it must continue to push the boundaries by unlocking the power of DNA data. Genomics England will provide the investment and leadership needed to dramatically increase the use of this technology and drive costs down."
Genomics England will be funded by the DH in the medium term, and any surplus will be invested back into improving health. It will be chaired by former chair of the Medical Research Council, Sir John Chisholm.
"This project represents a great opportunity to translate our world-class genomic science into world leadership in genomic medicine. Genomics England will create a dataset of anonymized whole-genome sequences matched with clinical data at a scale unique in the world," Chisholm claims.
Further explaining the funding setup, the Department of Health's Peter Bramwell notes that "the £100m pledged by the government is for the entire Genomics England program for the next three to five years to pump-prime the initiative as the technologies develop. Genomics England will have premises and staff, but will intentionally be an enabling organization, managing contracts, licensing access and unlocking the benefits of the sequencing. We will discuss running costs once it is fully operational, but they will not be disproportionate to what Genomics England will deliver. Any surplus would be generated by selling the data, but the data will be held securely in the U.K., strictly protecting confidentiality in line with existing NHS arrangements. Researchers, both public and private, will need to apply for a license and access the data only via a secure data link."
The launch of Genomics England comes at a time when health secretary Hunt and the Tory government, led by Cameron, are under increasing pressure for their attempt to privatize the NHS. To highlight the accelerating pace of NHS privatization, earlier this summer activists and health professionals planned to descend on Farnham, in the heart of Jeremy Hunt's South West Surrey constituency, to canvass local people about the threat of a privatized NHS. According to the Guardian, "how the NHS looks at 75 depends more on the future of politics than on economics." The paper pointed out that the ambulance service, for example, uses 10 times more private ambulances at a cost of £4 million a year, and that between a quarter and a half of all community services are now run by Richard Branson's Virgin Care. To date, the government's health reforms have resulted in £7 billion in contracts to private firms such as Virgin, private equity-owned Care U.K., Serco and Circle, the DailyMirror reports.