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U.K. Unveils Plan to Sequence Whole Genomes of 100,000 Patients

Whole effort. The United Kingdom will sequence the whole genomes of 100,000 people with cancer and rare diseases.

U.S. Department of Energy/Office of Biological and Environmental Research

With genetic technology advancing quickly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom announced today an ambitious plan to fully sequence the genomes of 100,000 Britons with cancer and rare diseases. Although many countries are touting their efforts to decode their citizens' DNA in the name of treating and curing disease, the new project is unusual because it will decode entire genomes, not just parts of them.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement that the government's National Health Service (NHS) has earmarked £100 million, or about $160 million, to the effort. The money is part of £600 million ($965 million) announced last week for research in the coming years. The sequencing is expected to take 3 to 5 years.

The effort joins many sequencing projects and biobanks across Europe and beyond. In March, the United Kingdom officially opened its biobank of 500,000 people, which includes health information and blood samples. In February, Norway announced plans to sequence tumor genomes of 1000 cancer patients.

The newly announced project is arguably much more far-reaching. "In terms of scale and scope for whole genome sequencing, this sounds to me pretty much unique," says Leif Ellisen, a medical oncologist who studies cancer genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. There are other whole genome sequencing efforts under way—for example, a project in New York to decode the genomes of up to 1000 people with Alzheimer's disease—but they are narrower in their medical goals and the number of volunteers they include.

The big challenge with the U.K. venture, Ellisen says, will be converting the massive amounts of DNA data generated into usable information that can help people. In a statement, Cameron exuded optimism: "By unlocking the power of DNA data, the NHS will lead the global race for better tests, better drugs and above all better care," he said. The statement from 10 Downing Street, Cameron's office, also suggested that the 100,000 people who contribute their genomes to the project will be directly helped by it—a claim Ellisen calls "a stretch."

So far, there are just a few examples of individuals benefiting from having their full genomes sequenced; most involved very rare diseases. Although doing whole genome sequencing on this scale is "clearly the right thing to do," Ellisen says, "we don't want to overpromise" how quickly progress will happen.