Genes study will bring 'new era' in medicine

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The world's largest study into the role played by genes and lifestyle in illness could lead to a new era of medical treatment, its backers claimed yesterday.

Professor George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said the UK biobank project could lead to drugs designed specifically for individuals within 20 years.

Sir George was speaking as the MRC, the Wellcome Trust charity and the Department of Health announced an initial grant of £45m for the research.

Biobank, which could begin recruiting volunteers this year, aims to monitor the health of up to 500,000 middle-aged Britons over many years, correlating their health, lifestyle and genes.

Researchers hope to find the relative influence of genes and environmental factors in predisposing people to illnesses such as heart disease or cancer. Sir George said the funding would enable a project that could "herald a new era of medicine".

"In 20 years' time, we may see individualised approaches to disease prevention and treatment. Once we understand the genetic bases of various diseases and the genetic differences between individuals that may affect their responses, it may become possible for a GP to prescribe drugs or other treatments designed specifically for people's own genetic make-up," he said.

The project has been criticised over the safeguards to ensure the genetic data it holds remain private and were not open to commercial exploitation. But Dr Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, said he would be personally willing to donate his DNA to the study. "I may not reap the health benefits in my lifetime, but those of us contributing to the project can rest assured that our involvement will provide a better life for our children and grandchildren," he said.

Similar gene banks have been set up in other countries, but not with so many people or in a population with such genetic diversity.