Medical research charity, LifeArc, has announced that it is providing £5 million funding to support the work of the GenOMICC COVID-19 Study, led by the GenOMICC consortium in partnership with Genomics England. The study, launched in May 2020, is using genomics to investigate why some people are affected more severely by COVID-19, and increase our understanding about the disease.
GenOMICC is a global collaboration of doctors and scientists working together to understand and treat serious illnesses, including emerging infections like SARS, MERS and now COVID-19. The partnership with Genomics England was formed to enable large scale and rapid whole genome sequencing and analysis for NHS COVID-19 patients, leveraging Genomics England’s sequencing and analysis ecosystem available to researchers. LifeArc’s funding complements £4.6 million of additional funding already announced by the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and will support the costs of patient enrolment, sample acquisition, sample processing, and bioinformatics analysis of patients. The aim is that, with a patient cohort and data set of this size, scientists will be able compare the genomes of people who had severe illness with those who had more manageable symptoms, to try to identify genetic factors associated with the body’s reaction to the virus.
It is anticipated that the output from this work will provide valuable insights into the fight against COVID-19 and potentially other coronavirus infections. This is the first time that a systematic whole genome analysis of patients of a viral pandemic has been undertaken and it is hoped that this may also provide therapeutic and preventative strategies for future pandemics.
Chris Wigley , CEO at Genomics England, said: “At Genomics England, we are proud to be working with the NHS, the University of Edinburgh and other partners in the fight against COVID-19, to understand why people respond so differently to this terrible infection. Genomics is already giving us critical insights, as the partnership’s recent Nature paper and many others have shown. LifeArc’s support will allow us to accelerate and scale these insights and continue to feed them into clinical trials, clinical practice and fundamental research.”
Melanie Lee, Chief Executive Officer at LifeArc, said: “At LifeArc we focus on translation – advancing promising science into medical interventions that improve patients’ lives. This initiative moves us forwards to better understand the heterogeneity of responses to COVID amongst people, considering that genetic variation may play a key differentiating and therefore predictable role.
“It is hoped that this programme will provide rapid insights that can inform accurate diagnostics, and potential targets for drug development. We hope this work will also help inform the 15 clinical studies that we have funded into investigating existing drugs for efficacy in COVID patients, as part of the £27 million LifeArc has now allocated to research projects to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dr Kenneth Baillie, Chief Investigator of the study and Academic Consultant in Critical Care Medicine, University of Edinburgh, said: “This support from LifeArc is a great boost for the GenOMICC consortium. The aim of GenOMICC is not only to find the genes that cause life-threatening disease, but to use that information to find new treatments. Our work on Covid-19 has already shown the potential of genetics to guide us about which drugs to test next. LifeArc’s focus, on translating scientific findings into real world impact, fits perfectly with this.”
The PHG Foundation is a charitable policy think tank whose mission is ’making science work for health‘. Philippa Brice, their External Affairs Director, is a member of the UK Pharmacogenetics & Stratified Medicine (UKPGx) Network Steering Committee.
We spoke with Philippa to find out more about her background, her current role, and her passion for science and communication.
“I originally studied pathology, specialising in infectious disease,” she told us, speaking of her time at Christ’s College, Cambridge. “I realised during my PhD that everyone else hated writing up their thesis, they complained like poison, whilst I thought it was terrific. I thought ‘I should pay attention to this’ - that I still loved the science, but actually preferred talking about it or helping put it to use rather than doing the actual research.”
After working in pharmaceutical intelligence and “somewhere between science communication and science policy” at the Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park, Philippa found her way to the PHG Foundation, who were looking to develop their communications as a newly independent charity. The Foundation was looking for someone who could understand scientific research but also communicate findings to a wide range of audiences, including policy makers, researchers, healthcare professionals, lawyers and regulators. Her current role is all about people – bringing together expert voices and viewpoints to understand issues and propose the best ways forward.
“At the PHG Foundation, our focus has always been on genomics and technologies arising around genomics. We're particularly concerned with helping to support and develop policy that will accelerate the use of the best science into public health and healthcare practice… The (UKPGx) Network is doing an amazing job and you can tell that from the growing number of members, demonstrating that there’s quite a wide community of people with shared interests and expertise in pharmacogenetics and stratified medicine, which of course relates to many different aspects of personalised or precision medicine.
"We’ve got a lot to learn from each other, and the more we can share, the faster we can advance overall."
"Precision medicine is a very exciting area, not least how increasing understanding of cancer genomics is enabling the development of new targeted treatments – in fact I think it is potentially starting to change the whole face of how we understand cancer and future cancer care, too. However, pharmacogenetics can also deliver really significant health improvements for a whole range of conditions. Changing how we prescribe quite common medications based on our individual sensitivities should have small but significant benefits for very large numbers of patients – all of us, really, since we all need medicines at some stage.
“We talk about precision medicine now, but often we use the term to refer to tailoring treatment not to individual patients but to “sub-groups”, looking at how we stratify patients into groups for whom different treatments or doses are most appropriate. Stratification can really transform how we care for patients. I think it’s going to start delivering in the next few years, we’re going to see real benefits.
“The knowledge about genomics is so fast moving that the PHG Foundation is always trying to help health policy catch up, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Making the most of this incredible science for health means that a lot of people with different skills and expertise need to work together. I think that’s the great thing about the UKPGx Network; a lot of networks of this kind are essentially academic research networks, and that can be very valuable in itself, but this Network actively brings together the clinical, the commercial, the academic and the policy sectors. We’ve got a lot to learn from each other, and the more we can share, the faster we can advance overall.”
The Biomedical & Life Sciences Collection is an extensive resource of specially-commissioned online lectures by world leading experts. It includes both advanced and introductory-level talks on a wide range of topics ranging from basic research to therapeutic intervention.
Topics covered include genetics & genomics, drug development, the design and analysis of clinical trials, and much more. The collection can be used for teaching as well as a continuing support for researchers.
The Centre for Pharmacy Postgraduate Education (CPPE) was established in 1991 and is a not-for-profit organisation, funded by Health Education England. The CPPE is recognised as an effective provider of high-quality learning resources to pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in the NHS workforce across England. Hosted by the University of Manchester, the CPPE currently offers over 270 online training modules.
We spoke with Michal Lada, a CPPE Senior pharmacist in learning development, about their e-learning programme “Introduction to Genomics in Pharmacy.”
Michal told us that the programme was developed with pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and also pre-registration pharmacists in mind. The information was put together by experts in the field including Professor Dyfrig Hughes, co-director of the Centre for Health Economics and Medicines Evaluation at Bangor University. Sonali Sangvhi, Pharmacy Advisor at the NHS England Genomics Unit, as well as Dr Michelle Bishop, Education Development Lead at HEE Genomics Education Programme, provided external reviews of the e-learning. Other experts came from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds related to genomics and pharmacogenomics. Professor Hughes also acts as a programme guardian, ensuring that the content will be kept up to date with the ever-developing science behind this field.
The e-learning programme describes the role of genomics and pharmacogenomics in the healthcare context, discusses some of the terms and concepts used in genomics, and identifies some of the practical, ethical and social issues in implementing genomics in pharmacy. The programme covers the theory behind pharmacogenomics, but also contains inspirational accounts from healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, who work in various sectors related to genomics. Current and future challenges in bringing pharmacogenomics into healthcare are explored, and worldwide examples of the application of pharmacogenomic testing are presented. The programme also introduces the NHS Genomic Medicine Service.
Michal explained the importance of this topic, saying, “pharmacy is one of those healthcare professions that deals with medicines and supports patients in a very person-centered way. Genomics and pharmacogenomics appear more and more to be some of the most important factors in the management of treatments through, for example, the reduction of adverse reactions and improvement in medicines efficacy.”