At the beginning of the month, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, announced that the United Kingdom intended to invest in order to have the “biggest genetic database in the world”. This investment marks the 2nd stage in his Genomic England project, which intends to carry out the genome sequencing of 100,000 citizens between now and 2017. This has cost £400 million, i.e. €500 million to date.
The sequencing race
What happens to all this genetic data? “Scientists hope that by comparing the genetic code between a healthy person and a sick person, it will be possible to develop better targeted, personalised and effective treatments”.
Illumina, “the world leader in sequencing” has already promised to invest in the United Kingdom’s Genomics England project through its research centre near Cambridge. The latter also houses the campus of the Welcome Trust – a British foundation investing in genetic research.
In Le Monde on 19 August 2014, Jay Fatley, Director and Founder of the American Company, Illumina, was interviewed about the launch of his “system which is capable of decrypting a genome in less than 24 hours for 1,000 dollars”. This clearly unveils the company’s strategy and future outlets in the field of predictive medicine: “to identify individual predisposition to various diseases” and thus “before long, when you consult an oncologist, genetics will help him/her to choose the most effective cocktail of substances for your treatment”. This director, who is highly sought after by the pharmaceutical laboratories and who works with Google on “forward-looking projects”, explains that, in 2010, he had his genome analysed: “I found out that I was suffering from about ten or so conditions and that I would have to die in the years to come!” He estimated the sequencing and DNA testing market to be worth 20 billion dollars in 2014.
Sequencing limits: not all factors are genetic
However, not everyone shares this enthusiasm for predictive medicine. Professor Dominique Stoppa-Lyonnet, Head of the Genetics Department at the Curie Institute, who was also interviewed, emphasised the limits of sequencing: “[It] reveals an increase in the risk [of developing a disorder], but cannot say whether a given person will definitely develop cancer and when. […]”. This is particularly true since “a large number of risk factors have nothing to do with genetics”. In fact, only 5 to 10% of common cancers (breast, colon, ovarian, etc.) are linked to a genetic factor. According to the Professor, it is “too early to carry out general public predisposition tests. There is a risk of error and of making inappropriate decisions, especially in terms of preventive surgery”.
Finally, this sequencing raises important ethical questions. Laurent Alexandre, chairman of DNAvision, pointed a finger at prenatal genetic tests: “ The integral sequencing of a child’s DNA will upset our relationship with procreation since thousands of diseases can be routinely screened during pregnancy”, setting the alarm bells ringing for a future “eugenic slippery slope”. NIPS can already sequence the DNA of a fœtus in the mother’s blood in order to detect Down syndrome.