NHS Genomic Networks of Excellence – a transformative new approach to healthcare challenges in the NHS

“Our vision is that the power of genomics in predicting, preventing and diagnosing disease, and targeting treatment is accessible to all as part of routine care in the NHS.”

This is the first line from the Accelerating Genomic Medicine in the NHS strategy published at the inaugural NHS Genomics Healthcare Summit in late 2022. Just over one year on, and I am pleased to share that we are now taking a huge step towards this vision with the launch of the NHS Genomic Networks of Excellence.

As a national integrated healthcare system, and as part of our commitment to deliver a world-leading genomic medicine service, we’re providing £15m of funding over the next two years for networks to bring together NHS staff, academic experts, industry partners, and patient groups. They will develop cutting-edge approaches to tackle some of the most pressing challenges for the NHS, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Transformative approaches to diagnosis and treatment

Cardiovascular disease often has strong genetic markers, and with a quarter of deaths in England and Wales attributed to cardiovascular disease, one of the networks of excellence will now begin researching and implementing approaches to improve the identification of people at risk of cardiovascular disease. By identifying those at risk earlier, we can put life-saving interventions in place to dramatically improve patient outcomes.

It is programmes like this that breathe life into our strategy. As the strategy states, “solutions to some of our pressing issues in healthcare will not be found in the usual places”, so by enabling genomics to be in every NHS clinician’s toolbox, we can transform the ways in which we diagnose and treat patients, often with far greater speed and accuracy.

The Circulating Tumour Biomarker Network is the truest testament to this. It is being setup to provide to expedite the introduction of ctDNA and other liquid biopsy tests into NHS cancer care. Liquid biopsy is a genomic blood test that can detect tumours in the body, reducing the need for an invasive biopsy. The test can shorten diagnosis times, with some patients starting the appropriate treatment for cancer much earlier in the pathway compared with a tissue biopsy.

A full list of the networks and what they will deliver can be found on the NHS England website.

Building on rapid innovation for a brighter future

We announced the networks last month to 450 members of NHS staff, key stakeholders, and patient groups, who came together for the second NHS Genomics Healthcare Summit to collaborate on, and engage with, the latest advancements in genomic medicine.

In my final comments to delegates, I reflected on my 45+ years in the NHS and how ‘genomic medicine’ as a term was not coined until 2003. 20 years on, the progress made in harnessing the power of genomics and delivering its potentially life-changing benefits is staggering; one recent example being our R14 testing service, which provides acutely unwell children in hospital with a rapid diagnosis following a whole genome sequencing test – a world-first test which launched last year. It is thanks to our incredible NHS workforce that these breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment have been fully realised and successfully delivered to patients.

We need to use these recent successes as a springboard for further service development in genomics. As outlined in our strategy, and with significant new care demands within our population, we need to continue to push the boundaries of health and science to improve care and treatment options for all of our patients. Emboldened by our strategy, with the vision of delivering equitable access to testing, our networks will delve deeper into the tapestry of genomics to help make this vision a reality.

The full list of networks is as follows, with further information on each available on the NHS England website:

  • Prenatal genomic medicine
  • Circulating tumour biomarker testing
  • Haemato-oncology
  • Rare and inherited disease
  • Severe presentation of infectious disease
  • Improving the identification and outcomes for individuals with inherited and acquired cardiovascular disease
  • Pharmacogenomic and medicines optimisation
  • Genomics artificial intelligence (AI)
Sue Hill

Professor Dame Sue Hill DBE FMedSci FRSB FRCP(Hon) FRCPath (Hon) FHCS (Hon) is the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for England and a respiratory scientist by background.

Throughout her career she has led on large-scale priority programmes across government and in NHS England including as the senior responsible officer for Genomics in the NHS, introducing a world-leading and nationwide Genomic Medicine Service, building on her work in heading up the NHS contribution to the 100,000 Genomes Project.

She has also played a pivotal role in the national COVID-19 programme leading the development and deployment of testing technologies into use for the UK population and co-directing the whole-genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 programme.