UK Research and Innovation has announced a new £200m project to sequence 500,000 people's genetic codes, to better understand, diagnose, treat and prevent life-changing diseases, including cancer and dementia. 

This "Whole Genome Sequencing" project leads the way anywhere in the world and is the most ambitious genome sequencing project to date.

The funding will be £50m from UKRI (the UK Government's research and innovation agency), £50m from the Wellcome Trust charity, and £100m in total from four industry players: Amgen, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson. The sequencing will be carried out by the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge and Amgen's subsidiary, deCODE genetics.

The total amount of genetic data generated will be enormous - approximately 600 billion pages of text. This will need to use unique big data techniques to store and analyse. The data will be linked to other detailed clinical and lifestyle data for the anonymised volunteers in UK Biobank. This will combine to give unique insight as to why some people may develop particular diseases and some may not.

Beyond the 100,000 Genomes Project

The completion of Genomics England's 100,000 Genomes Project last year was a massive step in showing the value of genetics in diagnosing and treating rare diseases and cancer. This new Whole Genome Sequencing project will go further and cover many common conditions. The hope is that it will enable more personalised treatments, according to people's genetic makeups, and helping to improve the predicting and preventing diseases.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has already funded UK Biobank to carry out a successful pilot at the Wellcome Sanger Institute with sequencing 50,000 individuals' genomes. A further 450,000 participants will now be sequenced. After the first 125,000 are sequenced (likely to be in May 2020), the four industry funders will have a nine month exclusivity period to review the data, before it is made available to other researchers.

It is hoped that the full project will be completed with all 500,000 UK Biobank participants becoming generally accessible in 2023.

What Is UK Biobank?

UK Biobank is a non-profit charitable company, which was established by the Wellcome Trust charity, Medical Research Council, Department of Health, Scottish Government and the Northwest Regional Development Agency. The UK Biobank's data is available to all bona fide researchers, whether in academia or industry, anywhere in the world.

The 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank project were recruited between 2006 and 2010, aged 40 to 69, and consented to their medical records being linked to a range of physical measurements and biological samples collected at the recruitment, with the objective to investigate the factors that lead to a range of late-onset conditions. Each participant is anonymised, so no one person is identifiable in any of the research.

Sir Michael Rawlins, Chair of UK Biobank’s Board, said: “We are delighted that government, charity and industry have come together to unleash the full potential of UK Biobank by supporting the sequencing of all the participants. It is a tribute to the altruism of the half million people who agreed to be part of UK Biobank, and it recognises the valuable findings that have already emerged from the project. Scientists around the world will be eager to use these genetic data in imaginative ways to further improve the health of the public.”

Sara Marshall, Head of Clinical Research and Physiological Sciences at Wellcome, commented: “This exciting new project will help scientists and doctors develop new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating a range of life changing diseases such as cancer and dementia. By sequencing the genomes of the UK Biobank participants, the research community will have an unprecedented resource to gain new insights into human disease. This work would not be possible without the generous support of the 500,000 participants of the UK Biobank who, without any direct benefit to themselves, have allowed their lives to be studied through blood tests, body scans and information from their medical records all in the hope that it will benefit others.”

Once again, the UK is leading the world with another exciting genomics project, which will ultimately play a major role in the future of life sciences - personalised medicine.