By Dr. Aphrodite Spanou, Director for Healthcare, Life Sciences & Chemicals, at the UK’s Department for International Trade.
Genomic medicine – though a relatively young branch of science – has already had great impact and amazing power to continue improving health outcomes globally. It provides an incredible opportunity to achieve faster, accurate diagnosis, and has driven a revolutionary shift toward precision and personalised medicine, meaning better, more targeted treatments for patients with diseases such as cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The UK has long been a world leader in this area, starting with the discovery of the DNA structure in the UK by Watson, Crick and Franklin in 1953. It was a major breakthrough and pivotal moment, as it allowed scientists to understand the molecular structure and therefore a deeper analysis of genes.
The UK remains at the forefront of genomics research, with our contribution to the Human Genome Project and the delivery of the 100,000 Genomes Project in 2018.
Today major technological advances are helping to accelerate the time it takes to read, analyse and understand genes, allowing us to discover new personalised medicines and therapies even faster. Combined with an exponential decline in sequencing costs, more clinically relevant sequencing timescales and large-scale public and pharmaceutical investment, genomics is dramatically altering the future of medicine, and at a level not previously possible.
The UK’s leadership in genomic medicine is detailed in the Government’s new Genome UK implementation plan published in May 2021. This sets out 27 commitments to deliver over the next year including 5 high-priority actions, such as identifying technologies that could be used to enable faster genomic testing for cancer; and delivering whole genome sequencing for patients with rare diseases and cancer as part of the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, making the NHS the only healthcare system worldwide to routinely offer this life-changing test for earlier diagnosis and improving patients self-care.
The Genomic Medicine Service is being delivered by public-private partnerships including the NHS and Genomics England, Illumina and a company arisen from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, namely Congenica.
Congenica leverages its deep capability in genomic analysis and AI to provide high quality data and software systems used by clinicians to rapidly diagnose and characterise rare disease. The Congenica clinical analytics platform has been chosen as partner to the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, in addition to supporting customers and partners in over 20 countries.
At the Forefront of Covid-19 Genomics Research
Building on the success of the world-renowned 100,000 Genomes Project – led by Genomics England in partnership with NHS England – the UK’s continued investment and leadership in genomic medicine has helped establish its position as the most advanced genomic healthcare system in the world today.
The UK, cornerstoned by the world-leading Wellcome Sanger Institute, has led the world in sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The strength of its genomics science base and diagnostics sequencing industry has allowed the UK to rapidly identify COVID-19 variants and capture critical data, enabling us to track and stay ahead of mutations in the genome of the virus. It is estimated that the UK contributes around 23% of all COVID-19 sequencing across the world uploaded to GISAID.
Illumina is a UK partner for Genomics England and provided genomic sequencing for the 100,000 Genomes Project. Illumina is a world’s leading genome sequencing company, serving nearly 2,400 institutions, across 78 countries.
The UK company Oxford Nanopore products represent a new generation of technology; to interpret sequencing data in as little as 5 minutes and thus guide treatment decisions. Their sequencing technology provides traditional properties such as low cost, high throughput data, but with new features in the market, such as the ability to do sequencing in a portable, handheld sequencer, in real time, and to provide richer biological data. Based on electronics rather than optics, nanopore sensing represents not only a new technology, but the potential to broaden access to important biological insights, due to unprecedented accessibility.
The Collaborative, Innovative Ecosystem
The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed shone a spotlight on the UK’s rapidly growing genomics industry, today worth over £5 billion and raising 34% of the wider UK life sciences sector’s total investment, according to the Genomics Nation report. One of the key strengths of the UK is the vibrant and collaborative innovation ecosystem it has nurtured.
The partnership between Genomics England, GenOMICC consortium, Illumina and the NHS, for instance, is the driving force behind a major new human whole genome sequencing study taking place across the NHS to help scientists understand whether a person’s genetics may influence their susceptibility to COVID-19. The project is backed by £28 million from Genomics England, UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). And Lifebit’s technology makes this data securely analyzable by external researchers.
Another exciting project being supported by the DHSC is the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, an innovative partnership of NHS organisations, the four Public Health Agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and more than 12 academic institutions, working together to provide sequencing and analysis capacity. By the end of April 2021, COG-UK had sequenced more than 450,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, enabling the tracking and analysis of viral variants.
Thanks to the unique partnership between Amgen, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Johnson & Johnson, alongside Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) the first 200,000 whole genome sequencing has been completed. Sequencing has been carried out by deCODEGenetics and the Wellcome Sanger Institute and is available to global researchers through the recently launched Research Analysis Platform.
The success of these endeavours is underpinned by the partnership between government, public health, innovative UK companies, academia and the NHS, which together constitute the tremendous appeal of the UK genomics ecosystem.
Sharing Innovation for the Global Good
A UK company harnessing the power of connected biomedical data is Lifebit. The company’s patented, federated technology is enabling better data connectivity by bringing researcher’s analysis and computation to where sensitive data resides, instead of moving it around. This innovative and highly secure approach has seen Lifebit work with high-profile clients globally in both the public and private sectors.
This includes powering the secure Trusted Research Environment for the UK Government agency Genomics England, with its 135,000-strong whole genome cohort of cancer and rare disease patients, as well as implementing an end-to-end research and clinical platform for Asia’s leading population-scale Precision Medicine Initiative, the Hong Kong Genome Project, which is set to sequence and analyse 50,000 whole genomes to achieve population-level genomic medicine.
This global approach is driven by Lifebit’s mission to increase both ethnic and disease diversity in available and connected biomedical datasets. Lifebit are particularly focused on supporting the national population genomic programs of the Gulf states to help representation and patient benefits be achieved.
Eagle Genomics is harnessing the power of the microbiome to transform knowledge of disease and wellness, while improving the health of the planet, including the onset and progression of debilitating chronic and metabolic diseases.
Gut microbiome can modulate the effects of immunotherapy and chemotherapy and the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, as well as neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The Eagle Genomics AI-knowledge Discovery Platform supports the entire innovation workflow – from hypothesis through insight to evidence-based product claims, in minutes rather than months – reducing ‘trial and error’ and helping to bring novel, safer and more sustainable products to market.
Eagle Genomics has played an important role supporting an EU-funded translational medicine bench-to-bedside program, to identify novel gene targets in vascular disease using a systems biology approach.
The UK’s Genomics Offer to the Middle East
At Arab Health 2022, we will be showcasing the unique capabilities of the UK genomics sector, featuring our most forward-thinking organisations with an impressive array of genomics technologies, health data solutions, research and innovation and diagnostics tests.
The UK Government is working with a number of countries that are interested in how personalised medicine and genomics can drive down the rise in diseases. In the Middle East, about 2.8 million patients are estimated to be suffering from a rare disease. Meanwhile, the Gulf States and the Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMR) countries show a rise in the number of cancer patients.
The UK’s Department for International Trade ambition is to continue to partner with healthcare providers across the Middle East, to explore how together we can support improved patient outcomes, across key areas such as cancer care, cardiovascular disease and inherited diseases.
Beyond COVID-19, the UK Genomics Sector is fast developing innovations, that promises to transform healthcare for patients globally.
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