The government has unveiled plans for a huge genome project that will see up to 100,000 people have their genetic makeup mapped, in a bid to gain a better understanding of cancer and other rare diseases.

The project, for which the government has set aside £100 million, will take place over the next three-five years, and will see the UK become the first in the world to use high-tech DNA mapping for these patients.

It is hoped that the move will give doctors a better understanding of a patient’s genetic make-up and treatment needs, helping to ensure that they have much faster access to the right treatments and personalised care. 

In addition, it should help researchers to develop life-saving new drugs and other scientific breakthroughs, that could "significantly reduce the number of premature deaths from cancer within a generation", according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 

"With our strong science base, our biopharmaceutical industry and the potential of the NHS as an engine for research, the UK is in a prime position to lead on the development and delivery of personalised medicines, bringing them to the patients who are most likely to benefit," said Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Stratified medicine boost

In further good news for the life sciences sector in the UK, the Medical Research Council is investing £10.6 million in three major new collaborations - combining 34 academic groups and 20 industry partners with charities and patients across the nation - to advance the emerging field of stratified medicine, i.e. exploring why patients with the same diagnosis respond differently to treatments. 

These aim to generate a better understanding of the mechanisms behind three diseases - rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C and Gaucher disease - so that in future doctors will be able prescribe drugs and therapies tailored to an individual’s genetic make-up, "vastly improving their chances of getting better and reducing their risk of experiencing serious side-effects".

“These consortia bring together the UK’s world class universities, health charities and industry to improve drug development," said David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science. "They the potential to improve patient care and help make the UK the location of choice for clinical trials [and] will help us get ahead in the global race," he said.

Life Sciences strategy update

Both these collaborations and the genome project were announced by Prime Minister David Cameron in an update on the progress in the government's Life Sciences Strategy, one year after its launch.

The report shows that the UK generated more than £1 billion on industry and private sector investment in the last year, including £500 million from GlaxoSmithKline to build its first new manufacturing plant in almost 40 years and invest more in two others, which the government says is "a direct response to the introduction of the Patent Box".

In addition, it claims that "real progress" has been made working more closely with businesses to ensure that the strategy is making "a real difference" in their work and encouraging investment in the UK.

Responding to the update, chief executives of the four trade body partners in LifeSciencesUK - the Association of British Healthcare Industries, the BioIndustry Association (BIA), British In Vitro Diagnostic Association and the ABPI - said the "steps taken to date provide a footing on which government and the life sciences sector can build".

However, the ABPI's Whitehead stressed that "more must be done to maintain the UK's position as an attractive place for pharmaceutical companies to operate", and called on the government to deliver the key recommendations with the government's Innovation, Health and Wealth programme, designed to improve timely access to the latest medicines.

"If we can create the right environment for pharmaceutical companies to operate in, our industry can be a key driver of much-needed economic growth in the UK." he said.