Britain to launch 100,000 genomes project as Obama backs DNA drive

LONDON (Reuters) - Gene research is getting a boost on both sides of the Atlantic, with scientists in England set to launch a project on Feb 2 to analyse 100,000 entire human genomes and US President Barack Obama backing a big new DNA data drive.

The twin projects show the accelerating work by researchers to understand the underlying basis of diseases and develop medicines targeted to the genetic profile of individual patients.

Obama will announce the US plan to analyse genetic information from more than 1 million American volunteers on Friday as a central part of an initiative to promote so-called precision medicine, officials said.

The 100,000 genomes project in England, meanwhile, was first unveiled by the British government two years ago - but the 11 centres charged with collecting samples will only begin full-scale recruitment from next week. The aim is to complete the programme by the end of 2017.

Such large-scale genomic research has become possible because the cost of genome sequencing has plummeted in recent years to around US$1,000 (S$1,250) per genome. That is a far cry from 15 years ago when it cost some US$3 billion to get the first human genome.

In the case of the British project, all the sequencing will be carried out by US biotech company Illumina, which has pioneered fast and cheap technology to read genetic code.

The 100,000 genomes project is focusing on patients with rare diseases, and their families, as well as people with common cancers. The idea is to tease out the common drivers of disease to help develop better drugs and diagnostic tests.

In addition to helping doctors understand more about disease, the government also hopes the scheme will make the state-run National Health Service a world leader in science and boost Britain's life sciences industry.

The project will actually recruit around 75,000 participants, rather than 100,000, since people with cancer will provide two genomes - one derived from the healthy cells in their body and one from their tumour. By comparing the two, experts hope to find the exact genetic changes causing cancer.