Healthcare set to be 'transformed' by genomics

Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent

DNA double helixImage source, SPL
Image caption,
DNA double helix

The future of healthcare, the medical profession and clinical trials in the UK were all subjects for discussion at the Academy of Medical Sciences.

The President, Prof Sir John Bell was there with his successor, Prof Sir John Tooke, who takes over the role tomorrow.

Prof Bell, Regius Chair of Medicine at Oxford University said the impact of genomics would transform the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

We've heard this many times before. Every week the medical journals and media run articles about yet another genetic link to disease being identified. There are plenty of references in my blog. Scientists now have huge numbers of targets for research but there have been very few therapies as a direct consequence - perhaps not surprising given the many years it takes to bring new medicines to market.

Prof Bell said the payback was finally happening and would be the "biggest single change in medicine since the discovery of pathogens in the 19th Century".

He added that an information technology revolution in healthcare was underway. Again, there has been much talk of this in the past, and he admitted he'd been sceptical until recently. He pointed to HES - Hospital Episode Statistics - as a major advance.

These record every 'episode' of admitted patient care in hospitals in England, and provide epidemiologists with a unique resource for tracking the effects of treatments.

Clinical trials

Prof Bell said IT in healthcare would transform the way the role of doctors in the future - something he felt many would be unhappy with. Doctors would have to adapt. "The idea that you are trained as an '-ologist' and do that for 30 years is bananas", he said.

Prof Sir John Tooke, the President-elect, is Head of the School of Life and Medical Sciences and Head of the Medical School at University College London. He said there were "unparalleled opportunities" for medicine from genomics, stem cells and the field of regenerative medicine.

He said we should see the NHS as a "population laboratory" - where the public and patients are encouraged to be involved in clinical trials. "Patients benefit, even when they are in the placebo (dummy) arm of a clinical trial, because of the care they receive and the satisfaction of taking part."

But the number of clinical trials conducted in the UK has fallen. Figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry show the UK's global share has fallen from 6% in 2000, to 2% in 2006 and 1.4% in 2010.

Prof Tooke said this was in great part due to the bureaucracy that surrounds regulation, which made it unattractive for industry to conduct trials here. The Academy has recommended streamlining the process which he said the government had accepted.