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£100 million project to lay foundations for personalised cancer treatments

12 December 2012

Plans to transform cancer treatment in England have been announced by the Government with proposals to introduce high-tech ‘DNA mapping’ for patients with cancer and rare diseases, within the NHS.

Up to 100,000 patients will have their whole genome – their entire personal DNA code – sequenced. This will give doctors a new, advanced understanding of individual patients’ genetic make-up, condition and potential treatment needs, with the aim of ensuring they have access to the right drugs and personalised care far quicker than ever before.

The UK will be the first country in the world to introduce the technology within a mainstream health system and the programme is expected to be completed over three to five years.

One human genome contains three billion base pairs - the building blocks of DNA – so sequencing the code will produce huge amounts of data. Some of the earmarked £100 million will be spent on creating systems for handling and storing the information.

When the programme will start, which patients will be eligible for the voluntary testing and who will do the genome sequencing and analysis have yet to be decided. But experts believe that analysing the genetic profiles of individuals will allow researchers to understand why some patients fare better than others, and help in the search for new treatments.

The news has been welcomed by Cancer Research UK.

CRUK chief executive, Dr Harpal Kumar, said: "This work will uncover a wealth of new information which doctors and scientists will use to learn more about the biology of the disease and to develop new ways to prevent, diagnose and effectively treat cancer.

"We're very excited about personalised medicine - some targeted treatments, such as imatinib, a drug for chronic myeloid leukaemia are already helping to treat patients more effectively - and we're working hard, with many others - to develop new treatments, and to ensure the NHS can effectively deliver a more personalised cancer treatment service."

He added: "We hope that this vital investment, together with other measures, such as continued support to diagnose cancers earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful, will be an important step towards saving more lives from cancer, sooner.

Although it is likely to be many years before everyone with cancer will be able to have treatment based on the genetic make-up of their cancer, the NHS already analyses single genes in cancer tests to determine the chances of particular patients having side-effects from treatment.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the government's chief medical officer, explained: "At the moment, these tests focus on diseases caused by changes in a single gene.

"This funding opens up the possibility of being able to look at the three billion DNA pieces in each of us so we can get a greater understanding of the complex relationship between our genes and lifestyle."

The Human Genome Project, which made an initial 'rough draft' of the human genetic sequence in 2011, cost approximately £500m.

But technological advances have cut costs dramatically, meaning the procedure can now be performed for under £1,000 per person, and officials believe the new £100m DNA mapping investment could reduce prices still further.

All patients will be asked for permission before their DNA is sequenced, with all subsequent data anonymised before it is stored, except when it is used for an individual’s own care.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: “It is crucial that we continue to push the boundaries and this new plan will mean we are the first country in the world to use DNA codes in the mainstream of the health service.

“If we get this right, we could transform how we diagnose and treat our most complex diseases not only here but across the world, while enabling our best scientists to discover the next wonder drug or breakthrough technology.”

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