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New UK Budget Could Affect Genomics Plans

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK's budget deficit and efforts to rein it in could begin affecting the advance of genomic medicine and plans for future genomics research, according to participants in a discussion in the House of Lords yesterday.

The discussion included members of a science committee, who pitched a number of their proposals for genomic medicine and research programs to a representative from the new coalition government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee members described proposals they released in a report last year, including recommendations that the UK build a new research institute focused on biomedical informatics and the drafting of a new white paper that would lay out the government's strategy for the future of genomics.

The chances for both of those recommendations making it very far under the new government do not look good, at least in the short term, according to Earl Howe, who responded to the committee members yesterday on behalf of the coalition government.

"Reducing the budget deficit is the main priority of the government," he said after several members of the committee had talked about a number of the 54 recommendations for a couple of hours yesterday.

"But even if this were not the case the public still has the right to expect [National Health Service] services to be provided in the most cost-effective way possible," he added. Though he admitted that the new government has not yet fully considered some of their proposals, he suggested that some may not be necessary or they may already be being considered by other government groups.

"It is still very unclear what type of bioinformatics will be needed for genetic testing, what their true role will be in supporting genetics services," Howe added.

Committee Chairman Lord Kamlesh Patel, who oversaw the 2009 report and who pushed specifically for the bioinformatics institute, disagreed with Howe, saying that the committee knows what resources are needed.

Howe said that instead of a white paper, a Human Genomics Strategy Group has been formed that will tackle many of the issues in the report, including the potential need for a bioinformatics institute.

Howe also suggested that the government under Prime Minister Cameron was unlikely to take an aggressive approach toward regulating genetic tests sold directly to consumers.

"We've thought about this very carefully, and in fact we cannot see that compulsory regulation would be particularly effective given the cross-border nature of the market that is delivered by the Internet," Howe said.

On the white paper recommendation, Howe said that another white paper from 2003 was reviewed in 2008 and some of its proposals were updated, "including strengthening of specialized genetics services, building genetics into mainstream services, spreading knowledge around the NHS, and generating new applications."

Possibly anticipating that the budget deficit would be a factor for the new government as it reviewed the report's proposals, Patel in his statement stressed the importance of genomics and of biomedical research funding for health, innovation, and business.

"My lords, while not all the promise of genomic and epigenomic science may come to fruition, there is already irrefutable evidence that developments in science will have implications in healthcare, and there is also good evidence there are opportunities for the UK to benefit from investing in both technology development and science," he said.

"Too often in the past, as it happened with monoclonal antibodies, which now is a billion-pound per year business, cat-scanning, MRI, ultrasound, and other drugs that our science delivers, we do the good science but we are poor at converting it to commercialization. We need to change that if our economy is going to benefit," Patel added.

A pre-budget report in Parliament projects that roughly £600 million ($883 million) will be cut from science funding and from higher education together by 2012-13.

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