Blog: Let’s talk about the ‘G’ word

In this blog, Chris Wigley, CEO of Genomics England, tells us in his own words why it is so important for us to talk to as many people as possible about genomics, and why we have launched our podcast, The G Word.

I’ve spent my career at the intersection of technology, ethics and human stories. Now, I lead the amazing team here at Genomics England. We’re trying to bring the benefits of genomic medicine to everyone, and that involves accelerating genomic research, and also working with the NHS to bring genomics into the heart of healthcare. It’s a big topic, but it’s a very human topic.

Picture this scene: your friend Susan is a 35-year old-lady, and she’s just had a devastating phone call. Her older sister has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. They caught it early, so chances are good. At first, all Susan could think about is her sister. But as the days go by, she starts to think about herself. How does this change her own chances of getting cancer? Is she going to get this too? Picture a second scene. You’re on the sofa watching TV. It’s a thriller, and the detective is closing in on the suspect. She confronts him, and they speak. She offers him a cup of coffee. Later, she whizzes over to the lab, swabs the cup, and hands it in for DNA analysis. And you think, “Wow, can she do that? What’s the science? What’s the law?”

Part of what we do at Genomics England is spend a lot of time with our patients and participants, really understanding what they need, and what’s important to them. And that’s why we get out of bed in the morning. We’re trying to help make a difference in their lives. And in 2021, we really want to open up that dialogue. Genomics is coming into the mainstream of healthcare and many other domains. We believe passionately that we all need to talk more about it, and that we at Genomics England need to be all ears in listening to different perspectives.

‘Genomics’ is a word that can trigger really strong responses: hope; fear; anger; other responses. And there’s a lot of information out there. But it’s not all accessible to non experts. And there are some myths out there. So we want to talk more about this word, the G word – genomics. That’s what our new podcast is about.

Genomics is fascinating to me because the science is moving so fast. The technology is right at the cutting edge of what machines can do, whether that’s computers, DNA sequences, or wet blood chemistry. But most of all, it’s fascinating because of the impact on people’s lives – the human stories that we get involved in, and the fact that our work helps make sure that more and more of those stories have happy endings.

The UK, of course, has a proud history here, from Charles Darwin, to Rosalind Franklin, who used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of DNA, to Crick and Watson who modelled that structure so beautifully, to Fred Sanger, who transformed DNA sequencing, and many more individuals, teams and institutions. But so many of us are unaware of the possibilities of genomic medicine and the potential impact. I deeply believe that everyone should be involved in making those decisions as genomics comes into the mainstream, so I’m going to be trying to explain some of the concepts and increase people’s understanding and interest in this. I’ll be hearing from some people whose lives have been changed by genomics, talking to some of the leading researchers in the field, hopefully dispelling some myths and misunderstandings, and really listening and discussing the ethical, scientific and practical challenges in this field. I also hope that I’m going to be learning a lot, that I’ll be stimulating debate and opening channels for people to express their views, because talking and listening breeds understanding.

We’ll be talking with some amazing people, from global leaders in the field to community leaders, ethicists, policymakers, religious leaders, and of course, to the patients and the research participants for whom we do this work.

Yesterday, we released our first episode with Dr Eric Topol, who is an incredible conversationalist and who incidentally wrote his thesis in 1975 about how genomics should be driving personalised healthcare. In the coming weeks, I’ll also be talking Professor Dame Sally Davies, the former Chief Medical Officer whose 2016 report Generation Genome set the tone for the UK’s endeavours, to Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Jillian Hastings Ward, who is a leading campaigner and a representative of folks who’ve participated in genomics research. But critically, I want to hear from you. My DMs are open on Twitter (@chris_wigley), or you can email [email protected].

In the meantime, sit back, pour a cup of tea, load up The G Word here or on any of the major podcast-listening platforms, slip on your headphones, take the dog for a walk, do what you do. At the risk of stealing, with pride, from Lord Reith’s mission statement for the BBC: we aim to inform, educate and entertain.

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