News & views

Since the last time we ran this course – we have been tracking the appearance of genomics in the news in order to assess how salient it is in the ever-changing news cycle.

It has surprised even us how frequently genomics news stories appear. Almost daily we hear about the impact of genomics on healthcare and how gene-directed diagnosis and therapies are transforming our understanding of widely divergent fields of medicine. We thought we would share with you some of the stories we found particularly interesting. They exemplify the extent to which genomics is going to change everyone’s lives, whether as a patient or as a healthcare professional.

  • Human embryo editing given (tentative) green light by UK ethicists

Editing a DNA strand

A leading bioethics council has given a (conditional) ethical green light to human embryo editing.

In a controversial report published in July, the Nuffield Council of Bioethics conclude that ‘the potential use of heritable genome editing interventions to influence the characteristics of future generations could be ethically acceptable in some circumstances’.

At present, this remains a theoretical discussion – UK law currently prohibits editing of germ-cells or embryos in a clinical context. Editing of human embryos up to 14 days old (which are not allowed to develop past this point) for research purposes is allowed but is heavily regulated by the Human Fertility and Embryo Authority (HFEA).

Nevertheless, the conclusion of the report that human embryo editing could be morally permissible if ‘intended to secure the welfare of a person who may be born as a consequence of interventions using genome edited cells’ and ‘consistent with social justice and solidarity’, has sparked controversy, with some lobbyists claiming it could open the door to ‘designer babies’ in the future.

Where do you stand?

  • Personalised medicine to become routine for NHS cancer patients

From the springboard provided by the ground-breaking 100 000 genomes project, the NHS has announced the launch in October 2018 of its ‘Genomic Medicine Service’.

Whilst genetic testing is already undertaken within the NHS, access to testing can be variable and depend on regional expertise. This new service intends to address this inequality, and from October, NHS patients across the whole of England will have access to genomic medicine on an unprecedented scale.

Hospitals will be connected to specialist centres, allowing diagnosis of rare disease, targeted treatment and a reduction in adverse drug reactions. New cancer patients will routinely have their tumour genomes screened, allowing treatment to be targeted specifically at the mutations which drive their cancer.

‘We are ushering in a new era of genomic health. This is a big step and it grows over the next two years. It’s a total transformation.’ Professor Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist, Genomics England.

  • Revolution in depression

Black and white image of a man with his head in his hands

Scientists from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium have reported a significant breakthrough in the understanding of the complex interplay between genetics and environment with the publication of a ground-breaking study in Nature Genetics in July.

The study results from a collaboration of international scientists, who together have managed to combine DNA data on a large enough scale to identify 44 genes contributing to an increased risk of depression.

The study provides insights into the nature of major depressive disorder, its underlying neurobiology and biological interconnections with other psychiatric disorders, and perhaps most importantly, potential therapeutic targets.

  • Can a cancer’s past predict its future?

It has long been recognised that patients with kidney cancer have very variable progression and outcome, despite having histologically similar tumours. But until now it has not been possible to predict which patients will follow which course and to tailor their treatment accordingly.

As tumours grow they mutate and evolve, accumulating more and more ‘driver’ mutations which encourage disordered and uncontrolled growth. Now, a team from the Francis Crick Institute, funded by Cancer Research UK have found a way of charting the evolutionary history of a tumour and using this information to predict its progression.

In a series of papers, published in the journal Cell, the researchers report how they analysed kidney cancers from 101 patients, recruited into a multi-centre prospective study. By taking a series of samples from different parts of each tumour and undertaking whole genome sequencing to analyse genetic relatedness of the samples, researchers were able to determine the course of the genetic evolution of each individual tumour.

This understanding of the tumours’ evolutionary history enabled researchers to identify evolutionary features and subtypes underlying the diversity of clinical courses and outcomes observed. Importantly, they also propose that these features can be used as potential biomarkers to guide appropriate personalised treatment and surveillance.

Talking point

Which of these stories interests you most and why? Have any other stories about genomics in the press caught your eye?

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

The Genomics Era: the Future of Genetics in Medicine

St George's, University of London

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: