A new era of medical discoveries, treatments and cures is on the horizon, researchers say, following the announcement that an unprecedented trove of genetic information is to be made available to scientists. Health researchers from around the world can now apply to study the whole genomes of half a million people enrolled in UK Biobank, a biomedical research project that has compiled detailed health and lifestyle records on individuals since it began 20 years ago. The move on Thursday amounts to the largest number of whole-genome sequences ever released for medical research. The sequences will be used with UK Biobank's records and other data to delve deeply into the genetics of everything -- from people's risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other conditions, to individuals' sleep and exercise patterns.
Researchers believe the new data will allow them to calculate people's individual risk scores for a raft of cancers and other diseases, and so work out who could benefit most from early screening. They should also gain a deeper understanding of serious genetic conditions such as Huntington's and motor neurone disease, which have often been studied in small numbers of severely affected patients. Health experts from academia, the government, industry and charities can apply for access though they have to be approved and study the genomes through a protected database stripped of identifying details such as names, addresses, birth dates, and GP information.
With that number of whole genomes in hand, researchers will be able to find much rarer genes which drive diseases, including those that behave like switches and turn other genes on and off.
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