Jon Benjamin
British Embassy, Mexico City
Expert Contributor

UK Driving Genomics Research

By John Benjamin | Thu, 08/04/2022 - 10:00

The fifth wave of COVID-19 has begun in Mexico, with cases on the rise. However, the number of hospitalized patients and the overall mortality rates have decreased, alluding to the benefits of immunization through the different existing COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines have not only helped reduce the impact of the pandemic but they have also brought into focus the benefits and innovations of modern genomic medicine.

The UK is a long-standing leader in the field of genetics, making world-changing discoveries; from the DNA’s double helix in 1953 to the completion of the Human Genome Project, an international program in 2003 to identify, map and sequence all the genes of the human genome . More recently, the UK’s strength in the genomics and diagnostics sequencing industry has been of great help for the completion of the 100,000 Genome Project in 2018, a British initiative to sequence and study the whole genomes of NHS patients, focusing on rare diseases, cancer and infectious diseases, as well as for the surveillance of COVID-19 virus variants and mutations. Building on this capacity represents an opportunity to provide resilience against future disease outbreaks.

The growth in precision medicine (also known as customized healthcare) and the importance of genomic technologies, along with a focus on preventative medicine and early detection of diseases, has boosted extensive innovation in biotechnology in recent years, underpinning genomics as the foundation of modern medicine. The Genome UK strategy launch in September 2020 set out an ambition for the UK to be the world’s most advanced genomic healthcare ecosystem by 2025, supporting startups, companies, investors, world-leading academics, unique data resources, leading research institutes and the NHS. This involves key members of the healthcare ecosystem brought together by their common mission to improve patients’ lives.

Today, major technological breakthroughs are helping to accelerate the time it takes to read, analyze and understand genes, allowing us the opportunity to understand pre-disposition toward certain diseases, achieve faster and more accurate diagnoses and to inform the best course of treatment, and thus build and deliver a better health service. As technology keeps progressing, sequencing costs will decline, making the process more accessible. This, in turn, will help achieve a number of public health goals, such as reducing global health inequalities through the provision of efficient, cost-effective diagnosis and treatment. Nowadays, the UK has over 154 genomics companies driving this change, employing over 5,000 highly skilled people and serving a market worth over £5 billion. In parallel, the global genomics market size is expected to grow to US$62.9 billion by 2028.

The British, Welsh and Scottish governments, along with the Northern Ireland Assembly, have agreed a series of commitments to improve outcomes for patients through better genomic testing practices and access to clinical trials. These commitments form part of the UK’s new implementation plan, published in May 2021 as part of the Genome UK Strategy, which sets out 27 pledges to deliver over the next year, including five high-priority actions:

  • To improve the diversity of genomic data, addressing the historic under-representation of data from ethnic minority groups in genomic datasets, which results in health inequalities.
  • The rollout of whole genome sequencing to patients with a suspected rare disease and certain cancers in the NHS GMS.
  • Proof of concept work, led by Genomics England in partnership with the NHS, to deliver the first phase of a next-generation approach for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
  • Our Future Health (formerly known as the Accelerating Detection of Disease Challenge) will help drive developments in the next generation of diagnostics and clinical.
  • To provide funding to the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) to develop standards and policies for sharing genomic and related health data, ensuring its standards are easily accessible and ready for use by global genomic programs and data-sharing initiatives.

The UK is committed to a future where genomics greatly improves the mental and physical well-being of not only the British population but millions more worldwide. This is why, between the government and industry, billions of pounds are being invested into funding to develop therapeutics like the development of personalized T-cell therapies targeting unique protein markers for cancer and supporting a drive for the UK to be the first country to apply whole genome sequencing at scale in direct healthcare.

Genomic medicine has already had a great impact in helping the world understand COVID-19, as seen by the creation of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in record time. Nevertheless, there is huge potential to continue improving health outcomes globally by incorporating the latest genomics advances into routine healthcare and to support fundamental and transnational research. This to ensure a seamless interface between research and healthcare delivery. For example, GSK focuses on functional genomics, the combination of human genetics and the application of AI/machine learning to pinpoint causes of disease with greater accuracy and speed in areas such as respiratory, HIV, immuno-inflammation and oncology.

The time is now to focus on genomic medicine and its future, a field in which the UK is pushing the boundaries of discovery to make health technologies accessible to all those who need them, allowing diseases to be detected and treated earlier and, of course, creating more effective, targeted medicines for everyone. The potential applications and benefits of genomics are vast, and we are just at the start of our journey, so let’s explore and embrace the science and keep working to create resilient and accessible health systems across the globe.

Photo by:   Jon Benjamin