Unleashing the potential of global Britain for life sciences: Genomics and precision medicine
By World Pharmaceutical and Biotech Journal-
“The UK is not going to rest on its genomics laurels” – Angela McFarlane, UK&I Senior Market Development Director, IQVIA.
Kicking off a series of webinars concentrating on ‘Unleashing the potential of Global Britain for life sciences’, co-hosted by IQVIA and Public Policy Projects (PPP), a coalition of women leaders in UK life sciences discussed the UK’s poll position in driving the genomics revolution, in respect of how the UK is performing on the global genomic stage – and, crucially, how genomic science will accelerate disease diagnosis, precision medicine discovery and improve quality and quantity of life. Chairing the conversation was Angela McFarlane, UK&I Senior Market Development Director at IQVIA.
The UK’s strength in the field of genomics and precision medicine was recognised unanimously, with McFarlane noting in her introduction that the UK accounts for “12 per cent of all global cell and gene therapy trials, making the UK the largest advanced therapy cluster outside of the US”.
Within each speaker presentation, however, there was a call to action for increased interdisciplinary cooperation and an advocacy for a rebalancing of the patient-clinician relationship. There was a latent sense that, whilst the UK is leading the way in genomics and precision medicine, it must continue driving for change. Galvanising these ideas was an ongoing reflection of the lessons which could be learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic and the effectiveness of real-time genomic application to track new mutations of the virus during the UK’s vaccination programme.
To enhance audience interaction, a series of polls ran through the webinar with McFarlane posing the first question of participants asking ‘how positive they were that the UK will remain the global genomics destination for precision medicine discovery’. Aiming to evaluate participants’ initial attitudes towards genomics and the UK’s role in its development, the results of this poll can be seen below.
Competition and collaboration – globalising data
Dr Joanne Hackett, Head of Genomic and Precision Medicine at IQVIA, picked up on the positive poll response in her presentation: ‘Competition and collaboration – globalising data’, in which she set out the foundations for the discussion, emphasising how the issues of genomics are the issues of big data in general. The large quantities of data required for genomics is problematic for two reasons: physical storage and mental abstraction. Whilst ensuring individual patient privacy is protected at all stages is key, it can be difficult to even comprehend such a vast scale, let alone apply it to clinical practice. Dr Hackett stressed that “looking at large amounts of data is challenging” and that it is, therefore, crucial to link the genomic data to clinical, “non-identifiable patient-participant data” if the process is to have “clinical utility”.
The quality and depth of the data, and a lack of linkage, are the key challenges facing genomics experts, according to Dr Hackett. Genomics still being in its infancy means there remains a lack of standardisation in data types between organisations, and an overall lack of infrastructure to support such a large expected pipeline. Data privacy can understandably be an issue for patients too. Infrastructure development, Dr Hackett argues, is the key to ensuring the security of collected data assets and it is, therefore, doubly crucial to strategize its implementation. Whilst the UK has already “made a huge amount of progress” to this end, infrastructure needs further development to deal with the data analysis stages as “while we can all brag about the size of our databases, it is actually not very fruitful unless we have some sort of linkage to [clinical data]”. Dr Hackett suggested that having a rigorous privacy strategy and reliable infrastructure is fundamental and key to building public trust in genomics.
Whilst the UK is a “leader in this area”, genomic sequencing and science is not unique to the UK and the UK has benefitted greatly from genomic developments across the world. Genomics is global and based upon the idea that we should constantly be increasing the quantity of data available to scientists to ensure more accurate findings and more significant results.
Responding to a challenge regarding how the UK could retain its “competitive edge” as other countries develop their own genomic databases, Dr Hackett proposed that combining the UK’s data sets with those of other nations would lead to the fastest and most profound results. She argued that we have a “responsibility to share our learnings” and advocated for a collaborative approach which puts the patient above international competition. Dr Hackett added that, even if the UK shared its advantages with the world, “we will [still] be able to lead” in clinical trials and research.
The results of the second poll demonstrated a consensus of support for collaboration, at least between organisations within the UK. When asked why the UK led in population genetics research, seventy-seven per cent of participants agreed ‘collaboration between government, industry, charity and academic institutions’ was responsible.
A full recording of the session can be accessed here. Part two of the feature will be published on Tuesday 26 April 2021.
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