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UK Government Unveils New Genomic Healthcare Strategy

NEW YORK – The UK government has published Genome UK, its national genomic healthcare strategy, promising to offer patients the best possible predictive, preventative, and personalized care underpinned by genome sequencing.

The strategy includes three areas — diagnosis and personalized medicine, prevention, and research — and was laid out in a 64-page report published over the weekend.

For diagnosis and personalized medicine, the government envisions using genomic technologies to identify the causes of rare diseases, infectious diseases, and cancer and to tailor treatments to patients' individual illnesses. The UK National Healthcare Service is expected to "embed the latest genomic technologies" for the benefit of patients.

In particular, the NHS England Genomics Medicine Service will continue implementing whole-genome sequencing as routine care as part of a national effort to sequence 500,000 whole genomes by 2024. This is already underway within the UK. Last month, NHS Wales introduced a program to sequence the whole genomes of critically ill newborns.

Policy makers also plan to expand access to pharmacogenomics and to combine genomic, imaging, and longitudinal healthcare data to improve cancer patient outcomes, according to the strategy.

As part of its prevention efforts, genomics will be used to predict the risk of developing chronic diseases. This will involve expanded newborn screening as well as national screening programs to flag at-risk populations, in order to support clinical and lifestyle interventions.

Research, meantime, will benefit from "more efficient and improved collaboration" among researchers, while upholding data standards and working to streamline research findings into the clinic. One touchstone research study mentioned is being led by the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) study consortium. The £28 million (about $36 million) project, which commenced in May, aims to obtain whole-genome sequences of 35,000 patients affected by COVID-19 in collaboration with Illumina.

Matt Hancock, secretary of health and social affairs, said in a statement that genomics has the "potential to transform healthcare" and that the new strategy will allow the country to "go further and faster to help patients right here in our NHS and give them the best possible chance against a range of diseases."

The National Genomic Healthcare Strategy was commissioned by the UK's National Genomics Board, a body established in 2016 to help implement various genomics-related programs in the country. The strategy does not have a budget per se but is expected to draw on the UK's Budget 2020, which will increase public R&D spending to about £22 billion by 2025.

In addition to the strategy's three pillars, five "cross-cutting themes" are also discussed. These include engagement and dialogue with the public, patients, and healthcare workers; engagement of the healthcare sector with genomics via training, education, and new standards of care; supporting industrial growth in the UK; maintaining public trust through ethical frameworks, data security, and regulation; and delivering nationally coordinated approaches to data analytics.

Genomics England is expected to play a role in the strategy, including engaging the public to build trust, and helping implement genomic testing within the NHS, such as the whole-genome sequencing of critically ill children via the NHS England Genomics Medicine Service.

In a statement on Monday, Genomics England CEO Chris Wigley called the strategy a "landmark publication" and said that genomics is already "bringing about tangible advances in healthcare."

Wigley also noted that Genomics England would work to secure the UK's status as a genome research hub by "ensuring clinicians have the tools they need and access to the latest scientific advances." The strategy will define "Genomics England's priorities moving forward," he said.