UK Joins Biopharmas, Wellcome on £200M Project to Complete UK Biobank Sequencing

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[Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd.]

The UK government will partner with four biopharma giants and the Wellcome Sanger Institute on a £200 million ($246.9 million) initiative to complete the whole genome sequencing of the 450,000 yet-to-be-sequenced participants in the UK Biobank.

The public-private effort aims to improve public health through genetic research, as well as improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a variety of illnesses that include cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis, and dementia, according to the government.

“Its results could transform the field of genetic repeated research—unlocking the causes of some of the most terrible diseases and how we can best tackle them,” Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said in a statement. “It will be a major step forward for individually tailored treatment plans, and will help us better understand why some people get certain diseases while others don’t.”

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and deCODE genetics, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Amgen, will use unspecified Illumina technology to carry out the sequencing, with the samples to be sequenced in equal numbers.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)—the UK’s government-funded umbrella organization created last year to advance research within the kingdom—will contribute £50 million ($61.7 million) toward the project through the UK’s £210 million ($259.4 million) “From Data to Early Diagnosis and Precision Medicine” Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).

Using £34 million (approximately $42 million) from the ISCF, the UK’s basic research funding agency Medical Research Council (MRC) funded a successful pilot program at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in which the UK Biobank sequenced the genomes of 10% or 50,000 participants.

Another £50 million ($61.7 million) will come from the medical research foundation Wellcome, while the other £100 million ($123.4 million) will come collectively from Amgen, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and Johnson & Johnson. Two of the companies are headquartered in the UK: AstraZeneca in Cambridge; GSK in Brentford.

“Whole genome sequencing on this scale is unprecedented, and through this collaboration we hope to unlock the potential of genomics to evolve our understanding of complex diseases such as cancer, heart disease and chronic kidney disease,” stated Mene Pangalos, Executive Vice President, BioPharmaceuticals R&D, AstraZeneca. “These new insights will guide our drug discovery program and will help us bring innovative new precision medicines to patients who need them most urgently.”

The first tranche of sequence data—expected to consist of about 125,000 sequences—is expected to be made accessible to all researchers in the spring of 2021. At that time, the 50,000 sequences generated by the pilot study will also be made available, according to UKRI.

The UK Biobank stores genomic data from 500,000 volunteer participants ages 40-69 that was collected between 2006 and 2010 from across the kingdom. The participants provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, detailed information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed on an anonymous basis.

The UK Biobank whole genome sequencing initiative will contribute toward the UK government’s commitment to carrying out five million analyses of DNA by 2024.

Leadsom added that the public-private funding “will support one of the world’s most ambitious gene sequencing programs ever undertaken, reflecting the UK’s determination to remain at the forefront of scientific endeavor and progress.”

Maintaining the UK’s position as a leading nation in genomics and broader scientific activity is a stated priority of the government led by Boris Johnson, who took office succeeding Theresa May on July 24, Johnson has vowed to pull the UK out of the European Union by October 31, and has quipped that rather than extend that deadline, he would “rather be dead in a ditch.”

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