U.K. plans massive gene sequencing project

The U.K. plans to map the DNA of up to 100,000 citizens in an effort to better understand cancer and other rare diseases, and to develop new treatments. It has set aside 100 million pounds ($160 million) to be used over the next three to five years for the project.

The database of genetic sequences is to be used in conjunction with its mainstream health service, the world's first nation to do so, Reuters reports.

A statement from Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the project could reduce the number of cancer deaths within a generation.

Though testing of a single gene already is available through the National Health Service, Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, told BBC that the project "opens up the possibility of being able to look at the 3 billion DNA pieces in each of us so we can get a greater understanding of the complex relationship between our genes and lifestyle."

Some critics of the project, however, have expressed concern about how the data will be used and shared with third parties, including drug companies. The group Genewatch says that through such a database, all those who participate could be identified and tracked.

Participation in the project will be voluntary, and opting out will not affect patients' care through NHS, the government said.

It's not clear when the gene sequencing will start, who will do the sequencing and analysis, and which patients will be eligible, according to iHealthBeat.

The cost of gene sequencing has been falling--this Cancer Research UK piece puts it at 1,000 pounds per person (about $1,600)--and the government believes the cost will fall further.

Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center cited the falling cost genome sequencing, as well as advances in computing power, among reasons behind its own ambitious $3 billion project to tackle eight types of cancer.

With a five-year, $3.75 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins researchers are building a massive cancer cell database to be stored in the cloud--actually on computers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Despite such efforts, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Office for Civil Rights recently warned that there is no fail-safe method to de-identify patient information.

To learn more:
- read the Reuters story
- here's the BBC article
- check out the iHealthBeat post
- read the Cancer Research UK piece
- here's the statement from David Cameron's office


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