Advances in genomics and genome editing mean that both fields are now being used in the UK’s health service.

The Science and Technology Committee, a House of Commons Select Committee, recently published a short report on Genomics and genome-editing: future lines of inquiry.

The overall focus of their inquiry is the impact of genomics and gene-editing on human health, plants, animals and ecosystems, with this first part of the inquiry looking very specifically at the impact of these emerging technologies on human health. The report was issued as a stock-take for the next Science and Technology Committee, to be appointed after the General Election in June 2017.

The human genome consists over 3 billion DNA base pairs and contains all of the information needed to make proteins that our bodies built with, from blood cells to fingernails. Many rare diseases, such as childhood cancers, or cystic fibrosis, involve changes (mutations) to DNA.

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Genome editing involves the insertion, deletion or replacement of DNA in the genome of a living organism. It offers the potential to replace a mutated gene that causes disease with a healthy copy of the gene, “knock out” a mutated gene that is functioning improperly, or even introduce a new gene into the body to fight a specific disease.

The Science and Technology Committee report covers the role of Genomics England in delivering the 100,000 Genomes Project – a flagship project to sequence 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients and their families, which focuses on rare diseases and common cancers. The ultimate aim of this project is to “create a new genomic medicine service for the NHS – transforming the way people are cared for. Patients may be offered a diagnosis where there wasn’t one before. In time, there is the potential of new and more effective treatments.”

The committee has discussed ethical, consent and data-sharing issues associated with both the 100,000 Genomes Project and in the wider application of genomics.

A particular area of public concern highlighted by the report is whether the therapeutic use of genome editing to prevent human disease could also lead to future non-therapeutic use, for example in ‘designer babies’.

The committee suggests further efforts should go towards considering how genomics and gene-editing fit into the life sciences area of the current Government’s Industrial Strategy, how to encourage more start-ups, and how to grow technology and health businesses in the UK.

The committee also explored regulatory issues, looked at the challenges of embedding genome editing techniques into the NHS, and considered commercial opportunities for genomics and genome editing in the UK.

The report concludes that the subject warrants further scrutiny in a timely manner, not least because of the impact Brexit will have in changing the opportunities and challenges in these emerging areas.

You can download the report from the Genomics and genome-editing inquiry webpage.

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