Chris Netherton, M.D.

Genome research will change the face of medicine


This month, thirteen European countries have agreed that, by 2022, they will share one million genomes in order to help advance medical research. The impact of these kinds of initiatives will be felt for many years to come.

The countries involved include the UK, Spain, Finland and Sweden. All parties have agreed to work more closely together and to find ways to provide secure and authorised access to genome and other health data for the purposes of finding new medical treatments for all kinds of conditions.

It is now 15 years since the human genome was sequenced for the first time. What was once a very slow and expensive process has been getting quicker and more cost effective, aided by much more powerful computers. Today, genome sequencing can be carried out for as little as £400.

Alongside this, the sophistication of the computer programmes and algorithms that analyse all this complex data have also been advancing massively. So being able to make medical use of the sequenced data is progressing much more rapidly than had originally been expected.

The first Human Genome Project was declared complete in April

2003

Imagine a scenario where a person’s genome sequence, which highlighted their health risks according to their genetic make-up, was able to be analysed by an AI system alongside their electronic health record, which showed their long-term medical history and symptoms. The kinds of diagnoses that would be possible with these tools could create a huge leap forward in medical practice.

It is no wonder then that some experts are predicting that, in the future, everyone will have their genome sequenced at birth so that this can become a permanent building block for their ongoing medical treatment. This will open up the possibility for much more personalised and precisely targeted treatments. It could transform the way we treat many conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and dementia.

The new kinds of interventions that would be possible may also help to reduce our over-reliance on antibiotics as a form of treatment. And eventually, we could discover ways of remedying genetic conditions which would otherwise have no cure.

What excites me about this kind of research is that it moves us one step closer to being able to make proactive, timely interventions and treat illnesses well before they become severe – maybe even before the patient has started exhibiting any symptoms. In the medical practice of the future, this could have a huge impact in reducing the cost of medical care and lessening the overall strain on our healthcare system.

I also admire the open nature of the partnership that has been announced. Through our work on patient record sharing systems, Microtest has seen the benefits of overcoming the problems that arise when medical information is held in different silos. The cross-border nature of this collaboration means that researchers right across Europe will get access to exactly the kind of data they need to conduct their pioneering work.

The hope is that, as the technology for genome sequencing becomes more and more affordable, it will mean that people around the world, including those in poorer countries, will be able to benefit from these more precise treatments. This could help to level the playing field in the quality of care that people receive. And that is a really inspiring prospect.