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The UK government has released its plans for implementing the UK Genome Strategy that aims to develop the world’s most advanced genomic healthcare ecosystem. The 10-year strategy was originally published in September 2020 with aspirations to transform disease diagnostics using cutting-edge genomic technologies and harness genomic research for the benefit of patients. Now, the government has published the first steps it will take towards reinforcing its role as a global leader in genetics and genomics.

 

The genomic community in the UK has thrived in recent years, helped by the foundation of Genomics England, the 100,000 Genomes Project and Prof Dame Sally Davies’ efforts to introduce DNA testing as part of the NHS’ approach to the prevention and early detection of cancers and rare diseases.

The work of genomic researchers and scientists went mainstream in 2020 in what became a watershed year for the life sciences sector in Britain. The much-heralded work of the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium (Cog-UK) in tracking the genetic history of the Sars-Cov-2 virus contributed to the global effort to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and in early 2021, the New Variant Assessment Platform gave global scientists access to the UK’s labs to sequence new COVID-19 variants.

 

According to Colin Roberts of BioCity, the UK’s largest life sciences incubator, 2021 could be a “golden year” for the industry, with increased investment in life sciences and government support to ensure new technology can be commercialised and utilised quickly to achieve better patient outcomes.

 

The government’s implementation of the UK Genome Strategy looks to capitalise on this by setting out several key commitments. The commitments are addressed under eight different headings; three pillars of the strategy and five cross-cutting themes. For the first phase of the implementation, covering 2021 and 2022, the plan focuses on 27 actions that will advance the commitments to the three pillars of genomic success (diagnoses and personalised medicine, prevention and early detection and research) and three of the five cross-cutting themes: patient engagement and ethics, data and workforce.

 

The key commitments, as outlined by the government, for implementing the strategy in the first phase are:

 

  • A major drive, led by Genomics England, to improve the diversity of genomic data. This will address the under-representation of data from ethnic minorities which results in health inequalities.

 

  • The roll-out of whole-genome sequencing to patients with suspected rare diseases and cancers. The ambition is to sequence one million genomes, which will transform efforts to create the most advanced genomic healthcare system in the world.

 

  • Proof of concept work to deliver the first phase of a next-generation approach for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. This will integrate multiple data sources and new technologies to support faster and more comprehensive genomic testing.

 

  • Our Future Health (formerly the Accelerating Detection of Disease challenge) will drive developments in the next generation of diagnostics and clinical tools, pilot participant recruitment processes and conduct feedback studies to test approaches to delivering health-related information to participants.

 

  • Funding will be provided to the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) by a number of groups, including the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to develop standards and policies for sharing genomic and related health data.

 

Other highlights of the implementation plan include a workforce survey that will identify the learning needs amongst those in the current genomics community along with commitments to research the genetics of symptom severity in COVID-19 infections. Additionally, the plan pledges to open access to a cloud-based research platform called the UK Biobank Research Analysis Platform for researchers to access genome sequencing data.

 

The implementation plan was written with the help of partners in the genomics sector and will be overseen by the Implementation Coordination Group, led by the Office for Life Sciences. This group will track progress and review the commitments against delivery milestones as well as ensuring that the strategy is being delivered UK-wide with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefiting in a true 4-nation approach.

 

The plan, and further information on the UK’s Genome Strategy, can be found here.

 

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