The UK is about to launch one of the more ambitious attempts at using genetic research to fight cancer and other nasty diseases. The National Health Service’s England branch plans to collect and sequence the genomes of 100,000 people in hopes of understanding both how DNA affects these sicknesses (such as gene-specific causes or symptoms) and what doctors can do to test and treat patients. The strategy will see the NHS run 11 specialized Genomic Medicine Centres across England, with more due in the future. So long as everything goes smoothly, the first recruits will sign up in February.
Genome sequencing doesn’t typically happen on this scale, and there are privacy concerns about learning the genetic makeup of so many people. However, the NHS is aware of the potential pitfalls — it’s stripping the personal details out of the medical records so that they can’t be traced back to individuals. As it stands, the genome program’s benefits might be huge. Hospitals could both have a better shot at diagnosing rare conditions and create specialized drugs that are more effective for certain people. Ideally, patients will spend less time worrying about what’s making them sick and more time getting better.