NHS Genome Project And 'Lensless' Cancer Microscope Offer New Year Research Hopes

A 'lensless' microscope and a new NHS-led genetics project could offer two new avenues for dramatic advances in cancer research in 205 and beyond.

The two breakthrough projects were unveiled separately, but could each lead to crucial new insights into how the disease works.

First, a new technique developed by scientists at UCLA promises to put the ability to scan tissue for cancer in the hands of thousands more doctors.

Instead of using lenses, the new microscope uses a CCD or CMOS sensor like those in common digital cameras to create a 'hologram'-like image of your tissue sample.

It can then create an image from that information which looks close to that which you'd get from a much more expensive microscope.

The new type of device is not a finished product, however, and there is still work to be done before it can be put into the hands of doctors.

But the possibilities are enormous - if GPs instead of specialists could look for signs of cancer before forcing you to endure waits to see expert doctors. It could also lead to new mass-participation research projects.

“This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing,” said Aydogan Ozcan, associate director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. “This is the first time tissue samples have been imaged in 3D using a lens-free on-chip microscope.”

Meanwhile the NHS has announced plans to sequence 100,000 genomes from patients in the UK within three years to try and find new ways to fight and detect cancer and genetic diseases. More than 3,000 will be sequenced by January under a pilot scheme.

The project will see 11 Genomics Medicine Centres set up in England to collect DNA samples. These centres will be the vanguard for a project that will eventually rolled out across the country by 2017.

Data from the study will be offered to drugs companies, researchers and others along with the medical histories of patients - though the NHS says all data that could identify individuals will be stripped.

The health service said 15,000 patients with rare diseases will have their DNA compared to their parents' and grandparents'. Up to 25,000 cancer patients will have their tumours compared to their own genome, in an effort to find those genes where mutations are 'causing' the disease.

Researchers hope that the result will be more targeted treatments, and a great understanding of why cancer occurs.

For instance, while breast cancer is usually seen as one disease, researchers now know it is actually at least 10 different conditions with different causes and effects. Genetics research has led to treatments for certain types of breast cancer with different mutations, and the hope is that mass research of human genomes will quicken the pace of these types of breakthroughs.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said:

“By putting firm foundations in place through Genomics England, this technology will let us make ground-breaking discoveries about how diseases work, who could be susceptible to them, how we can treat them, and what treatments might work.

“Earlier diagnoses will help to reduce uncertainty and stress for patients and families involved.”