Chris Netherton, M.D.

The key to more precise cancer treatments

The Chief Medical Officer’s ambition to offer genome sequencing to all cancer patients within the NHS could herald a new era in the way that we treat this terrible disease.

Currently, over 31,000 NHS patients have already had their genetic code sequenced. Professor Dame Sally Davies wants DNA testing to be routinely offered to all cancer patients within the next five years. She would like to see a world where this becomes as common a practice as conducting blood tests or CT scans.



NHS patients have had their genetic code sequenced

DNA sequencing has been shown to improve diagnosis and treatment in at least 60% of cases. It can help to identify the specific types of treatment that are likely to be most effective for a particular patient. It can also identify those patients who would not benefit from using certain drugs. This would save them going through unnecessary, ineffective treatments that may have harmful side effects.

I think that this whole idea of using data and technology to create highly personalised care that is specific to the needs of the patient is one of the most exciting developments taking place in medicine at the moment. Tailoring treatment in this way, based on an individual’s unique genetic code, has the potential to transform the way that medicine is practiced – and we are still at the early stages of discovering the full capabilities of this approach. It is particularly valuable in the context of cancer, where the disease has so many variations which make it challenging to treat.

Over recent years, the cost of conducting genome sequencing has come down from several thousand pounds per patient to around £700. However, the NHS work in this area is currently spread across 25 regional laboratories and some smaller facilities. It is believed that by centralising the service, the cost of the testing could be further reduced. Setting up a national network could also improve standards and make testing more widely available across the country.

When you compare that £700 cost to the price of some of the highly expensive drugs that are used to treat cancer, then it seems a small price to pay to ensure that the best treatments are being selected and that patients are not being put at additional risk by using drugs that are not appropriate for their genetic make-up. When they realise the life-saving benefits that it could bring, I think there is bound to be a surge in demand from patients who will want their genome sequencing to be carried out.

From the work that Microtest does in the field of electronic health records, I can see how powerful it would be to have the information that we currently gather supplemented by genome sequencing. Like never before, we would have access to a complete picture of an individual’s health profile, and would have the opportunity to make much more accurate predictions of the health issues they are likely to encounter, so that clinicians could intervene at an earlier stage.

It is natural that the prospect of collecting and storing such a large amount of sensitive patient information has raised concerns in some quarters over data security. Patients will need to be reassured that their data is totally safe and confidential. However, sophisticated technology exists today which can encrypt and protect their data in ways that ensure it can only be accessed by authorised clinicians and with the express permission of the patient.

It is vital that we create this kind of confidence for patients, so that we can ensure that this amazing technology is used to its full potential.