Major DNA mapping scheme will start with cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

A major new UK project to map the genetic causes of disease will initially focus on cancer, rare diseases and infectious diseases.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt also revealed plans to make the NHS a personal service for every patient, in an announcement coinciding with the 65th birthday of the NHS.

The Department of Health has prioritised the genetic analysis of lung and children's cancers, rare diseases and infectious diseases for the new project.

Sarah Woolnough Cancer Research UK's executive director of policy and information, said of the announcement: "This is exciting news and should help save more lives from cancer in the future.

"Crucially, it means unearthing a variety of new information that scientists can use to learn more about the biology of cancer in order to develop new ways to prevent, diagnose and effectively treat the disease."

Prime Minister David Cameron announced in December last year that the personal DNA code - known as a genome - of up to 100,000 patients, the infections they carry, will be sequenced over the next five years.

The project aims to boost understanding of various conditions and improve diagnosis, while also enabling more personalised care.

The project will be run by a not-for-profit company entirely owned by the Department of Health, called Genomics England, with any revenue it gains channelled back into improving health.

Genomics England will manage contracts for specialist UK companies, universities and hospitals to supply services on sequencing, data linkage and analysis.

It will also manage the storage of patients' personal data in line with existing NHS rules and set the standards for obtaining patients' consent to take part.

Sir John Chisholm, former chair of the Medical Research Council, will chair Genomics England.

He described the project as "a great opportunity to translate our world class genomic science into world leadership in genomic medicine".

Patients involved in the study will gain personal benefits from the information obtained, which will also benefit others as "world leading therapeutic products and processes will become available", he added.

Cancer Research UK's Sarah Woolnough pointed out that personalised medicine is emerging as "an exciting new frontier" in the battle against cancer.

She said some targeted treatments are already available - such as imatinib, which is used to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia driven by a particular gene - but there is more progress to be made in this area.

"We must understand more about a cancer's genetic makeup so we can develop more personalised treatments that will target its weak spots. And just as importantly we need to ensure the NHS can effectively deliver this more personalised cancer treatment service"

This latest announcement is "a step in the right direction" but it will be some time before all cancer patients can be given treatments based on the specific genetic nature of the disease, she added.