England's giant sequencing endeavor, the 100,000 Genomes Project, is getting a cash injection from public and private sources to meet its 2017 deadline, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today.
The project, launched by the U.K. government in 2012 and run by a state-owned company called Genomics England, aims to sequence 100,000 whole genomes of patients in the National Health Service's (NHS) records. The goal is to match genomic and clinical data to develop personalized therapies for cancer and rare diseases and to turn NHS into “the first mainstream health service in the world to offer genomic medicine as part of routine care,” according to the project's website.
So far, a few hundred genomes have been sequenced in Genomics England's pilot efforts across the country. The funding package announced today will allow the project to ramp up its activities to sequence about 10,000 samples next year and 100,000 by the end of 2017.
Most of the money comes from a deal with Illumina, a U.S. company that manufactures DNA sequencing machines: Genomics England will pay £78 million for Illumina to carry out the genetic sequencing, and the company will invest £162 million in the country over the next 4 years, the government said in a statement today. Illumina was picked out of six volunteer companies after sequencing trials, for its “superior product” and its ability to keep up with sequencing technology over time, said John Chisholm, chair of Genomics England, at a press briefing in London yesterday.
The Wellcome Trust, a major medical research charity, will build a £27 million sequencing facility on its Genome Campus in Hinxton, near Cambridge. In July 2015, Genomics England will move to Hinxton from its current location at Queen Mary University of London, with a view to begin large-scale sequencing in January 2016.
In addition, NHS has earmarked £20 million for the facilities where the patients will take part, and the state-funded Medical Research Council will award £24 million for high-power computing to store and analyze the genomes after sequencing.
Indeed, the interpretation of huge genomic data sets will be one of the most challenging parts of the project, the project leaders admit. “There is a tremendous amount of science to be done in order for us to get to the point where we can reliably interpret the genome,” Chisholm said.
Genomics England is setting up a so-called Clinical Interpretation Partnership, which will provide opportunities for academics and clinicians to carry out research based on the project's output. The rules and procedures for data access should be ready by the end of the year, when the first data sets are available.
Although some observers point out that earlier sequencing ventures, such as the Human Genome Project, haven't delivered on their promises, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, says genomics has the power to transform health care in the next 2 decades with more targeted, personalized therapies, for instance against cancer. "We will look back in 20 years' time and think of blockbuster chemotherapy as a thing of the past,” Farrar told the briefing.
The 100,000 Genomes Project will have to face challenges, in particular surrounding issues of data privacy, but has “excellent potential,” says Mark Wanner, a senior science writer at the Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit genomics research center in Bar Harbor, Maine. The project's main asset is that it is linked to a centralized health system—whereas other efforts, for example in the United States, were isolated projects that produce incompatible data, Wanner says. “Standardizing … is very important to try and get the depth of sequencing and accuracy to make [the data] clinically relevant,” he adds. “This project is not going to revolutionize health care, but it will contribute to changing health care.”