Life Sciences: Genome UK – Beyond Just The Future of Healthcare?
The UK has launched a new genomic strategy, Genome UK. It sets out plans to use genomics to establish the UK as a leader in the field, driving improvements in diagnosis and personalised medicine; disease prevention; and research. This is to be achieved by building on existing institutions, funding streams and infrastructure such as the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, Genomics England, Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Challenge and the research resources UK Biobank and NIHR BioResource. This strategy is in line with the UK's ambitions to analyse 5 million genomes by 2023/24. This article will explore Genome UK, the impact of genomics during the pandemic, and its implications on the market.
Breaking down Genome UK:
Genomics is the study of a person's genes (the genome), including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person's environment.
Genome UK is based on three pillars: diagnosis and personalised medicine, prevention and research. Genomic technologies will be used to identify the genetic causes of rare and infectious diseases, and cancer – allowing for the provision of personalised treatments to patients suffering from these illnesses. Genomics will also be used to predict the risk of chronic diseases through national screening programmes, identifying at-risk populations, and allowing for earlier clinical and lifestyle interventions. In terms of research, the strategy will improve collaboration between researchers and clinicians to the benefit of patients by ensuring that research findings are translated into healthcare settings.
The UK has long been part of genome sequencing development; from its contribution to the Human Genome Project to their delivery of 100,000 Genomes Project in 2018, to the establishment of Genome UK this year. The push towards genomic healthcare is owed to the decreasing costs of gene sequencing and the increase in computing power, which contribute to better sequencing than ever before. The genomic strategy is further backed by a commitment in the Budget 2020 to increase public spending on research and development by £22 billion by 2025.
Upon the launch of Genome UK, Matt Hancock, the UK's Secretary of State for Health has called on others to donate their blood to a new study examining genetic susceptibility to the virus. The study will compare the genomes of positively tested non-hospitalised individuals, to those who were in intensive care following their diagnosis. This has been said to be the best chance for healthcare professionals to discover whether a person's response to the virus is influenced by their genetic makeup and help them identify more effective therapies.
The speed in which genomic sequencing has come into the forefront of government strategy is also owed to COVID-19. The development of some vaccines involves using mRNA, which falls within the sector of genomics. This has highlighted the need for more investment in this area and may have accelerated the development of genomics faster than what would have been possible without the pandemic.
Biotech developments for the pandemic have led to a rise in genomic stocks in 2020, which is significant for the market which has had an otherwise unstable year. Due to the aforementioned Coronavirus vaccine, investors are now slowly realising the value of genomics. In May 2020, the Financial Times reported that genomic stocks are in "the first inning of a multi-year megatrend", with companies such as Illumina, a data sequencing company, seeing their share value surge by more than 188% since 2017.
The UK's genomic strategy is likely to add to this surge in stock prices and increase investment in this area. Moreover, the Genome UK government publication itself mentions an anticipated surge in new entrants and startups in the field of genomics in light of this new strategy. New entrants in the market will plausibly generate more legal work in the field of life sciences, as these companies will prefer to seek out law firms with expertise in the area.
Genome UK's ambitious plans to sequence 5 million genomes by 2023/24, however meritorious, bring up an often discussed and important privacy concern. As genomics involve harnessing a person's genetic data, which is highly sensitive, any data misuse could lead to potential privacy infringement for individuals and their blood relatives.
The Genome UK government publication has created shared principles for their genomic ventures. These include the encouragement of "availability and appropriate use of data for research and innovation that serves the public interest while promoting the protection of privacy and data security". This is followed by a principle that "patients and the public should be enabled to have access to their own genomic and health information and have an appropriate voice in the use of their data for research".
These pledges from Genome UK are on the right track, but there is a lack of legal certainty in a number of key areas which challenges the ability of data controllers to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018. The UK's exit from the European Union also provides increased scope for conflict and regulatory divergence in the field of data protection.
Genome UK is a positive and forward-thinking strategy that will revolutionise the face of healthcare provision. It recognises that in the era of uncertainty and pandemics, the traditional 'one size fits all' approach taken in healthcare is no longer viable. It is an exciting venture for researchers, medical professionals and patients, but also investors, life sciences legal practitioners and policymakers. If done right, genomic medicine might just be the future of healthcare and beyond.