The £300 million scheme aims to analyse 100,000 complete sequences of DNA – or genomes – from around 70,000 NHS patients. The project has already recruited patients with certain rare diseases.
Mapping out the DNA of patients’ tumours alongside their healthy tissue will improve researchers’ understanding of how a tumour’s genetic make-up affects how a patient’s disease develops, and their response to therapy.
Announced by life sciences minister George Freeman, the recruitment of cancer patients was welcomed by Cancer Research UK, and is hoped to offer new ways of treating, diagnosing and preventing the disease.
Sir Harpal Kumar, the charity’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.”
Launched in 2012 by the Prime Minister, the project is recruiting NHS patients through 13 Genomic Medicine Centres across England. So far over 6,000 genomes have been analysed.
Mr Freeman has also revealed there will be another £250 million worth of government funding directed into genomics.
Sir Harpal Kumar said: “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.”
Patients volunteering for the project are allowing their tumours’ genetic make-up to be analysed and compared to DNA from healthy cells.
Those who have signed up include three sisters who were all diagnosed with breast cancer within the space of just 15 months. They say they decided to take part to improve their understanding of the disease and how their families may be affected.
Thursday’s news was also welcomed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who believes that genomics represents the “future of medicine”.