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Maximising the health benefits of genetics and genomics

16 May, 2012

The general thrust of each of the Wellcome Trust’s challenge areas are, on the face of it, fairly self-evident. For instance, ‘Maximising the health benefits of genetics and genomics’ pretty much says it all: the Trust aims to ensure that the vast body of genetic information found throughout laboratories, servers and websites across the globe is put to good use; that this information is used intelligently, diligently, to improve the health of animals and humans. My own challenge was to turn this large-scale remit into a short film.

The way we went about it was to fuse the old with the new – to take a look at our genetic heritage and how it’s being preserved while taking a prime example of research that will revolutionise the treatment of cancer. Using this approach, I was able to acknowledge the vast wealth of research, ingenuity and insights of the original genetic pioneers who dragged humanity to a stage where it was able to recognise its hereditary essence. It’s so easy to forget, in this post-genomic era, that there was a time when scientists could only dream of sequencing an entire genome, let alone the chemical sequence underlying a human being.

Doing their level best to make sure every piece of this historical sequence remains intact, in perpetuity, are the Head of Wellcome Library, Simon Chaplin, and his team as they carefully record, digitise and preserve one of the most scientifically profound events in our intellectual history. At the other end of the historical scale, we have the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a biological data haven leading scientists ever closer to a state of genetic singularity – a point where everything there is to know about the molecule underpinning evolution is revealed.

The Cancer Cell Line Screening Project is just one of the many large-scale projects making headway. Dr Ultan McDermott – who runs the project alongside his colleague, Dr Peter Campbell – took me on a fabulous whirlwind tour of the labs currently engaged in the, previously unthinkable, task of screening around one thousand different cancer cell lines (cells that are immortal, possess specific cancer mutations and can be grown in flasks) with a range of drugs. The ability to carry out this sort of high throughput work means the team will be able to find drugs able to slow or kill the growth of cancer cells, and any positive ‘hits’ can then be taken one step closer to testing on humans.

Connecting both the Library’s digitisation and Sanger’s screening projects is the underlying principle that all the data stored and acquired should be made freely available online – one step closer to a truth acknowledging that neither the pursuit of ideas nor the pursuit of health should have boundaries.

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