First cancer patients recruited to world-leading DNA project

Posted on 21 January 2016 (Permalink)

The fight against cancer will receive a significant boost after the first patients with the condition were recruited to the main phase of the UK’s revolutionary DNA-sequencing project, Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman MP has announced. Cancer patients will now join those with rare diseases as part of the 100,000 Genomes Project, an ambitious initiative which aims to sequence 100,000 complete sets of DNA from around 70,000 NHS patients.

Speaking at the Festival of Genomics, the Minister also announced that the government has committed a further £250 million in funding for genomics as part of the recent Spending Review.

Launched by the Prime Minister in 2012 with over £300 million investment, the 100,000 Genomes Project aims to better understand DNA and how it can predict and prevent disease, and launch a genomic medicines service in the NHS. By recruiting cancer patients, scientists will be able to build more detailed understanding of how their DNA affects their susceptibility to disease and response to treatment. This has the potential to benefit patients here in the UK, and could also help in the global fight against cancer.

Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Genomics is the future of medicine and the sequencing of cancer DNA confirms why the UK is a global leader in this field. Over half a billion pounds has been invested in genomics to ensure that NHS patients continue to benefit from the prospect of better diagnosis and better treatments.”

Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman MP, added: “The recruitment of cancer patients is a significant milestone in the revolutionary 100,000 Genomes Project. It will help to unlock our understanding of the causes of this devastating condition, make the UK a leader in genetic research, and provide better diagnosis and more targeted treatment for thousands of NHS patients across the UK.”

Patients are being recruited through 13 Genomic Medicine Centres (GMCS) – specialist NHS sites selected across the country to deliver the project.

With a patient’s consent, a test is performed on their tumour which is then compared to healthy cells from a sample of blood and saliva. The testing happens alongside the normal care and involves a small sample of their tumour being analysed in much more detail by scientists.

As part of the project, scientists are conducting pioneering work to overcome the challenge of extracting enough DNA from the tumour that is of the right quality to be sequenced – a problem no country has solved – underlining the UK’s position as a world-leader in research and cutting-edge medical technology.

Three people joining the project are the Lloyd sisters: Mary (61), Sandra (54) and Kerry (46). All three were diagnosed with breast cancer within 15 months of each other. The sisters heard about the 100,000 Genomes Project, and signed up through University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in order to understand more about their conditions, and how their families might be affected. Some of their children now want testing too.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “It’s very exciting news that the first cancer patients are being recruited to the main phase of this ground-breaking project. The comprehensive mapping of patients’ DNA will reveal a vast amount of information that could help doctors and scientists develop new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer more effectively in the future.

“Precision medicine is already having an impact on some cancer patients, who are benefitting from newly-developed, targeted treatments such as the skin cancer drug Vemurafenib. We hope that, one day, treatments based on the specific characteristics of the tumour, including the genetic make-up, can be offered to all patients – and this latest phase of the 100,000 Genomes Project is another important step towards this.”

As a whole, the 100,000 Genomes Project can give potentially vital information about some of the world’s rarest and most devastating diseases, which not only benefits patients but also their families. The project has already delivered its first successes, with children at Great Ormond Street Hospital recently receiving life-changing diagnoses.

As well as the first cancer patients being recruited, Life Sciences Minister George Freeman also announced:

  • A £250 million commitment to genomics as part of the Spending Review. This will ensure the continued role of Genomics England, the company established by the Department of Health to deliver the project, beyond the life of the project and up to 2021.
  • That the number of genomes sequenced as part of the Project has now reached over 6,000.

Sir John Chisholm, Executive Chairman of Genomics England, said: “We are delighted that we have now reached 10,000 whole genomes sequences. The data from all  our participants provides a powerful resource for researchers  and  we hope that new understanding, diagnoses and treatments for rare diseases and cancer can be developed as a result of this.  Working together with the NIHR BioResource, Cambridge University, CRUK and Illumina has enabled Genomics England to reach this important milestone.”

Prof Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer for England, NHS England said: “By giving clinicians and researchers access to their DNA and health history, genomic 'patient' pioneers such as the Lloyd sisters are helping to put the 100,000 Genomes Project and the NHS at the forefront of science. Our clinical staff are driving through new tumour tissue handling, preparation and assessment methodology across the NHS Genomic Medicine Centres which will lead to higher quality samples and faster, more accurate results for patients. The global community is now looking to Genomics England and its NHS partners to set global standards for tumour DNA extraction, whole genome sequencing and its analysis.”

Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, also announced that her annual report for 2016 will focus on genomics, addressing some of the emerging issues in the field.

The report is intended to provoke a series of conversations about genomics, and ultimately build more public understanding and trust in this revolutionary form of medicine.