England’s National Health Service to Offer Widespread Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing for Children and Babies
Research in the UK and US into how rapid WGS can prevent deaths and improve outcomes for kids with rare genetic diseases may lead to more genetic testing based in local clinical laboratories
Genetic scientists with the National Health Service (NHS) in England have embarked on an ambitious plan to offer rapid whole genome sequencing (rWGS) for children and babies with serious illnesses, as part of a larger initiative to embrace genomic medicine in the United Kingdom (UK).
The NHS estimates that the plan will benefit more than 1,000 children and babies each year, including newborns with rare diseases such as cancer, as well as kids placed in intensive care after being admitted to hospitals. Instead of waiting weeks for results from conventional tests, clinicians will be able to administer a simple blood test and get results within days, the NHS said in a press release.
The press release notes that about 75% of rare genetic diseases appear during childhood “and are responsible for almost a third of neonatal intensive care deaths.”
Here in the United States, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers should see this development as a progressive step toward expanding access to genetic tests and whole genome sequencing services. The UK is looking at this service as a nationwide service. By contrast, given the size of the population and geography of the United States, as this line of medical laboratory testing expands in the US, it will probably be centered in select regional centers of excellence.
The NHS laid out its implementation plan in a strategy paper published on NHS England’s website titled, “Accelerating Genomic Medicine in the NHS.”
“This strategy sets out how more people will be empowered to take preventative action following risk-based predictions, receive life-changing diagnoses, and get the support needed to live with genomically-informed diagnoses alongside improved access to cutting-edge precision [medicine] treatments. It also outlines how the NHS will accelerate future high-quality genomic innovation that can be adopted and spread across the country, leading to positive impacts for current and future generations,” the NHS wrote.
“This global first is an incredible moment for the NHS and will be revolutionary in helping us to rapidly diagnose the illnesses of thousands of seriously ill children and babies—saving countless lives in the years to come,” said NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard (above) in a press release announcing the program. (Photo copyright: Hospital Times.)
New Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing Service
The NHS announced the plan following a series of trials last year. In one trial, a five-day old infant was admitted to a hospital in Cheltenham, Gloucester, with potentially deadly levels of ammonia in his blood. Whole genome sequencing revealed that changes in the CPS1 gene were preventing his body from breaking down nitrogen, which led to the spike in ammonia. He was given life-saving medication in advance of a liver transplant that doctors believed would cure the condition. Without the rapid genetic test, doctors likely would have performed an invasive liver biopsy.
Following sample collection at NHS locations, the genetic tests will be performed at the new National Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing Service, part of the South West NHS Genomic Laboratory Hub run by the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in Exeter, UK.
Using a simple blood test, the new newborn genetic screening service in England is expected to benefit more than 1,000 critically ill infants each year, potentially saving their lives. “The rapid whole genome testing service will transform how rare genetic conditions are diagnosed,” explained Emma Baple, PhD, Professor of Genomic Medicine at University of Exeter Medical School and leader of the National Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing Service in the press release. “We know that with prompt and accurate diagnosis, conditions could be cured or better managed with the right clinical care, which would be life-altering—and potentially life-saving—for so many seriously unwell babies and children,” Precision Medicine Institute reported.
According to The Guardian, test results will be available in two to seven days.
Along with the new rWGS testing service, the NHS announced a five-year plan to implement genomic medicine more broadly. The provisions include establishment of an ethics advisory board, more training for NHS personnel, and an expansion of genomic testing within the existing NHS diagnostic infrastructure. The latter could include using NHS Community Diagnostics centers to collect blood samples from family members to test for inherited diseases.
UK’s Longtime Interest in Whole Genome Sequencing
The UK government has long been interested in the potential role of WGS for delivering better outcomes for patients with genetic diseases, The Guardian reported.
In 2013, the government launched the 100,000 Genomes Project to examine the usefulness of the technology. In November 2021, investigators with the project reported the results of a large pilot study in which they analyzed the genomes of 4,660 individuals with rare diseases. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled, “100,000 Genomes Pilot on Rare-Disease Diagnosis in Health Care—Preliminary Report,” found “a substantial increase in yield of genomic diagnoses made in patients with the use of genome sequencing across a broad spectrum of rare disease.”
The study’s findings suggest that use of WGS “could save the NHS millions of pounds,” The Guardian reported.
Whole Genome Sequencing System for Newborns in the US
Researchers in the United States are also looking at the potential for WGS to improve health outcomes in children with genetic conditions. Last August, a research team led by Stephen F. Kingsmore, MD, DSc, President/CEO of Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine in San Diego, authored a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG) titled, “A Genome Sequencing System for Universal Newborn Screening, Diagnosis, and Precision Medicine for Severe Genetic Diseases,” that described a scalable prototype for a newborn screening system.
“This NBS-rWGS [newborn screening by rapid whole genome sequencing] system is designed to complement the existing newborn screening process and has the potential to eliminate the diagnostic and therapeutic odyssey that many children and parents face,” Kingsmore said in a press release. “Currently, only 35 core genetic disorders are recommended for newborn screening in the United States, but there are more than 7,200 known genetic diseases. Outcomes remain poor for newborns with a genetic disease because of the limited number of recommended screenings. With NBS-rWGS, we can more quickly expand that number and therefore potentially improve outcomes through precision medicine.”
A more recent 2023 study which examined 112 infant deaths at Rady Children’s Hospital found that 40% of the babies had genetic diseases. In seven infants, genetic diseases were identified post-mortem, and in five of them “death might have been avoided had rapid, diagnostic WGS been performed at time of symptom onset or regional intensive care unit admission,” the authors wrote.
“Prior etiologic studies of infant mortality are generally retrospective, based on electronic health record and death certificate review, and without genome information, leading to underdiagnosis of genetic diseases,” said Christina Chambers, PhD, co-author of the study, in a press release. “In fact, prior studies show at least 30% of death certificates have inaccuracies. By implementing broad use of genome sequencing in newborns we might substantially reduce infant mortality.”
Pioneering work with whole genome sequencing for newborns, such as that being conducted by the clinical laboratory and genetic teams at Rady Children’s Hospital and the UK’s NHS, could allow doctors to make timely interventions for our most vulnerable patients.