Gene technology: is success being squandered by a lack of political will?

Listening to a BBC radio interview a few days ago, I heard an interview with John Burn, Professor of Clinical Genetics at Newcastle University. He was talking about how political will is needed to make full use of the great progress that has been made in gene technology.

The medical revolution we have been promised for more than a decade could be upon us. Advances in gene technology now allow us to predict which people are at high risk of developing certain conditions by screening their genes. If, as Professor Burn said, we can get to the patients before the disease then there are many things that can be done right now to prevent it taking hold.

So what is the problem? Money – and more specifically investment in a bioinformatics institute. The UK government has invested heavily in this medical field over many years. Now this investment is paying off – many rare and complex syndromes, often affecting children, can now be detected. But before this information can be used to help people, we need to have the processing capacity to handle the huge amount of genetic data generated. The science base needs to be increased and retrained to cope with the huge amount of computation, sequencing and analysis.

Prof Burn argues that the UK should be leading this field; the British public are broadly supportive of these sometimes controversial developments, unlike those of other countries. However the Department of Health says that until a treatment is approved by NICE (the UK drug approval agency), it will not make any further investment. Not surprising in these hard financial times, but infrastructure like this is not created overnight.

There is already a European Bioinformatics Institute based in the UK, but as it is funded by 20 member states cannot be expected to perform routine screenings for UK NHS patients. As the potential and demand for new cures increases so will the political and public debate….. let’s see what happens in the coming months.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan and

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