Genomics England and others offer a compelling vision for genomics in the UK and beyond

The first Genomics England Research conference took place yesterday at the Central Hall Westminster in London. Front Line Genomics were lucky enough to have tickets, and what a fantastic and utterly unique event it was.

The idea of the conference was to showcase the world-leading research that is being done with 100,000 Genomes Project data. But it also offered a perspective on the state of genomics in the UK, including plans to strengthen the world-leading position of the UK in this remarkable field.

There was so much to report from at this meeting, and a series of articles and interviews will follow in the coming weeks. However, we wanted to give you a summary of the messages coming out of the meeting from our perspective:

The genomics sector in the UK is thriving – Collaboration and coordination is now driving progress

The level of coordination happening among different UK groups, including Genomics England, the UK Biobank, Health Data Research UK, Public Health England, the NHS, the UK Government and others was obvious in a way that it simply wasn’t 12 months ago. The goal? To advance the whole genomics and healthcare ecosystem in the UK. Watch this space – from a strong start, the UK is definitely going places and has a few surprises up its sleeve.

For Genomics England, the NHS is “Customer 1, 2 and 3”

The new CEO of Genomics England, Chris Wigley (sporting a fetching pair of bright red trainers) could not have been clearer on the purpose and vision for the organisation. “The NHS is customer 1, 2 and 3… the human outcomes are the ones that we’re really focused on”. While the role of Genomics England in supporting both research and clinical sectors is clear, it’s refreshing to hear clarity of mission across the entire Genomics England leadership team on the ‘why’ – here is an organisation that has patients at the very heart of its purpose.

Political support for progress in this sector is not wavering.

At a time of unprecedented political instability, it was reassuring to hear that the level of support from the UK government towards national efforts in genomics has not wavered one bit. We didn’t have to take Matt Hancock’s word for it – although he was keen to emphasize it. As Prof Sir Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist of Genomics England said, “We could not hope for better support from our politicians on what we’re doing”. That’s great to hear from someone who’s been in the thick of it for quite some time.

Genomics by itself is “pretty sterile” – the field is moving on quickly

For an event that focused so much on the use of genomic data, one of the recurring themes from the conference was the importance of connecting genomic data to disease and phenotypic data. It was noticeable, compared to just a few years ago, that the field has moved on from just generating/harvesting genomics data, and that more researchers are joining the dots from genomics data to other data sets in order to generate clinically-relevant insights.

We got a sneak peak at the UK’s National Genomics Strategy

Prof Sir John Bell was in typically bullish form as he gave a preview of the UK’s National Genomics Strategy. “The UK started the field and continues to lead it in almost every single domain.” Alignment of Genomics England, the UK Biobank and Public Health England is among the main things driving the UK’s genomics strategy. It was also great to see that the UK’s focus is increasingly extending beyond rare diseases and oncology and into domains such as risk prevention, reproductive health, neonatal screening and infectious disease.

The big bottleneck in precision medicine is the number of available therapies.

David Goldstein from Columbia University gave a comprehensive presentation relating to the precision medicine efforts he’s leading or involved in. The therapeutic dead end that is holding back precision medicine once genetic analysis has been conducted is stark. As he put it, “We’re lining up a patient with one of the 4000 known genes within which a mutation causes a Mendelian disease . For how many of those diseases do we have effective treatments? It’s not even in the hundreds… it’s in the tens.” The role of pharma in correcting this problem is more important than ever, leading me to…

Genomics offers a solution to the pharma drug development crisis.

With the average cost of taking a drug to market doubling every 9 years, and the number of new blockbuster drugs making it through development nose-diving, make no mistake about it – the pharma industry as we know it is in crisis. But as Ciara Vangjeli, Genetic Lead at UCB pointed out, “if your drug program has human genetic evidence supporting it, according to recent research your drug is at least twice as likely to succeed as one that doesn’t”.

In summary, we left this meeting energized and excited about the future of genomics in the UK, so definitely check this event out (and attend if you can) when it happens next year. We’re looking forward to telling you more about what we learned from the meeting in the coming weeks.

You can read our research highlights from the conference here

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