The ability to analyse people’s genetic constitutions will transform cancer care over the coming years. But to make the most of the technology, highly sensitive data will need to be shared. That presents problemsby Philip Ball / July 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
“It’s here already, and I believe it’s going to transform the NHS in the next 5-10 years.” Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England in the civil service, is talking about the “genomic revolution.” The annual report that she has just released—a regular component of the CMO’s advice to government—is focused on what genomic technologies can do for public health; it is called “Generation Genome.” She spoke about these prospects on 4th July at an event at the Wellcome Collection in London organised by the charity Progress Educational Trust (PET), which aims to promote the responsible application of science that affects people with genetic conditions and infertility.
Davies gave a persuasive pitch, which is backed up by a wealth of detail in Generation Genome, with each chapter written by other specialists. The ability to analyse people’s genetic constitutions—sometimes at the level of the entire genome (3.2bn “letters” of DNA’s molecular code), although that’s generally not necessary to screen for specific genetic conditions—will transform how some aspects of healthcare are done. It will improve cancer care, help to identify rare but often highly debilitating genetic diseases, and should ultimately lead to new medicines and treatments.
It will also raise questions about ownership, privacy and commercialisation of individuals’ genetic data, and will require changes in the way medicine is practiced that are going to be challenging for doctors, medical managers and other professionals to accommodate. One of the messages of the PET meeting, at which several other leading experts responded to and discussed Davies’s presentation of the report, is that it’s not just the general public who will need to be educated about the potential of genomic medicine; there may be a lack of understanding, even resistance, from those on whom we rely for our healthcare.
For some people, genetic testing and analysis sounds like an ominous technological intrusion. Some would, understandably, rather not know if their genes hold possible unpleasant surprises in store. Genetic counselors are already struggling to explain the complex issues about the risks (of cancer, for instance), associated with particular genetic profiles. With the flood of genetic data come difficult choices for healthcare professionals about how to prioritise choices with limited resources and to manage expectations—already, GPs are finding patients coming to them with the results of genetic testing by private companies, demanding treatments.
“The ability to analyse…