Chemotherapy will be obsolete within 20 years, scientists have predicted after launching a landmark project to map 100,000 genomes to find the genes responsible for cancer and rare diseases.
By the time children born today reach adulthood, invasive drugs and their devastating side-effects, will have been replaced by sophisticated medicines that can fix individual faulty genes, according to those behind the project.
Britain is the first country in the world to embark on a program to map the genomes of thousands of people in the hope of finding which genes are responsible.
In a joint £300 million project, universities across Britain are coming together, alongside the Department of Health, the Wellcome Trust, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Medical Research Council.
David Cameron, the prime minister, said the venture would ‘unlock the power of DNA’ to deliver ‘better tests, better drugs and better care for patients.’
"As our plan becomes a reality, I believe we will be able to transform how devastating diseases are diagnosed and treated in the NHS and across the world,” he said.
The first few hundred pilot participants in London, Cambridge and Newcastle have already donated DNA samples and the project is expected to be completed 2018.
"20 years from now there will be therapies, instead of chemo, that will be a much more targeted approach to treatment,” said Prof Jeremy Farrer, head of the Wellcome Trust.
“We will look back in 20 years time and the blockbuster chemotherapy drugs that gave you all those nasty side effects will be a thing of the past and we will think ‘gosh what an era that was’.
“Understanding humanity’s genetic code is not only going to be fundamental to the medicine of the future. It is essential part of medicine today. In rare congenital disease, in cancer and in infections, genomic insights are already transforming diagnosis and treatment.”
Prof Farrer also predicted that genome sequencing to find the causes of the disease will become standard within our lifetime.
The first human genome was sequenced in 2003 following 13 years of work at a cost of £2 billion. Now it takes around two days and costs just £1,000.
A genome consists of a person’s 20,000 or so genes and the DNA in between. Each genome consists of a code of 3 billion letters.
Over the next four years, about 75,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases, plus their close relatives, will have their whole genetic codes, or genomes, sequenced.
Cancer patients will have the DNA of both healthy and tumor cells mapped, making up the 100,000 total.
Scientists expect the project to be pivotal to the development of future personalized treatments based on genetics, with the potential to revolutionize medicine.
A £78 million partnership between Genomics England, the body set up by the Department of Health to oversee the project, and the Californian DNA sequencing technology company Illumina was unveiled by Mr Cameron today.
Illumina, originally "spun out" by Cambridge University scientists, will invest around £162 million into the project over its lifetime.
By the end of next year that figure is expected to have risen to about 10,000.
Strict confidentiality rules will be enforced and under normal circumstances, patients will not be told of unforeseen surprises that might effect their health - or insurance premiums.
But helpful findings will be fed back to the doctors in charge of their treatment. In return, those consenting to having their DNA sequenced must agree to drug companies having access to the information as well as academic scientists.
One example of such a therapy that already exists is Herceptin, a drug specifically designed for women with a type of breast cancer characterized by over-activity of the Her2 gene. .
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: "The NHS is now set to become one of the world's 'go-to' health services for the development of innovative genomic tests and patient treatments.”