Keeping up with the pace of UK genomics

Dr Emma Lawrence, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the BIA, explains why 2021 has been a big year for Genomics. She outlines what the UK needs to do to capitalise on scientific advances to ensure we maximise opportunities for innovation.

What a great time to be working on genomics policy! I joined the BIA in September and am relatively new to this policy area. It’s been a massive year for genomics in the UK and momentum is really building to translate this into patient benefit. Following some major announcements this year, what else is needed to cement the UK’s global position?

Flagship investments are paying dividends

We’ve recently heard that UK Biobank has completed whole genome sequencing (WGS) on 200,000 of its participants, making this the largest single release of whole genomes ever! This amazing feat was made possible by the unique public-private partnerships the UK has excelled at in recent years. The project was funded in partnership with Amgen, AstraZeneca, GSK and Johnson & Johnson, alongside Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This release reinforces the UK’s position as a world leader in genomics and provides an important foundation for innovation.

We had another world first for Genomics England, which recently demonstrated that WGS can uncover new diagnoses for people with rare diseases. The pilot study found a novel diagnosis for 25% of the participants. The findings have enormous implications for the NHS, which is currently rolling out its NHS Genomic Medicine Service. Genomics England have also finished sequencing long reads of over 100 cancer tumours. Not only is this the largest publicly available collection of WGS cancer samples but novel Oxford Nanopore sequencing technology was used for the pilot. Oxford Nanopore recently became London's biggest biotech listing in recent years. This is a tremendous success story for the UK Biotech sector, demonstrating that we can spin out and scale innovation here in the UK.

UK industry is growing

The BIA’s Genomics Nation report - published this summer in partnership with the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) - further highlighted the economic importance of the sector. A massive £3.3billion of private investment and £151million of public grants have been secured since 2011. In fact, this shows that for every £1 of public investment the UK has ‘crowded-in’ £35 of private finance, showing an impressive return on investment. The report showed that 36% of companies were spun out of academia, highlighting the importance of the public sector in the ecosystem. This thriving sector sits alongside world class assets like Genomics England, UK Biobank, stellar academic institutions and, combined with public investment, is growing fast. The UK environment is producing world class genomics companies in a trend that’s set to continue.

Further investment coming

Looking forward, will we be getting deeds as well as words from the Government? The Genome UK strategy and Life Science Vision talked big on genomics and the recent Comprehensive Spending Review did indeed deliver. The Treasury committed to £95 million for the delivery of the Government’s Life Sciences Vision, part of which has a strong genomics focus. The settlement also provides £5 billion for health-related R&D over 3 years. This includes a commitment to supporting two flagship Genomics England programmes: ‘Generation Genome’, a new-born screening programme set to sequence the genomes of 200,000 babies, and ‘Diverse Data’, to increase representation of minority groups in genomic research. More detail about specific allocations is due imminently.

Collaboration and coordination are the key to success

Now we have the investment, the science and the ambition, how can we really harness this strength and appetite for genomics research? The UK needs a joined-up approach to research, with industry able to participate in new initiatives such as those announced by Genomics England and the upcoming Our Future Health programme.

Genomics and lifestyle data is only part of the picture; access to full clinical records from the NHS will augment already rich data assets. SMEs need access to this data in secure research-ready environments. Data security, technology, regulation and approvals all need to keep up to ensure that the potential of data is reached. Making the data more accessible for SMEs, also makes it accessible for larger companies and academics. Involving SMEs in the design of data environments and approval processes will ensure user friendly systems that work for the whole ecosystem.

We’re already world-leading at genomics, now we need the underlying support and infrastructure to keep up. The BIA will be championing this industry-friendly approach through our 2022 influence agenda. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in – get in touch with me to find out more!

More within