Thursday, 11 July 2013

Sharing ideas at the forefront of science


Today I have visited three very impressive organisations.   The Hauser Forum on the West Cambridge site.  Over early morning coffee a group of experts from construction to finance discussed how to mobilise local energy investment - I particularly liked the head teacher who described the work he is doing to completely change energy use at his school.  

Then TWI - one of my favourite places for meeting real manufacturing problem-busters. If you want to work out how to stick the lid on a container of nuclear waste so it stays sealed for 5,000 years then you go to TWI.    We had a long discussion about the work they are doing leading international collaboration in advanced manufacturing - and Yes we do still make things in the UK. 

The Sanger Centre is home to "human genome project" and the European bio informatics centre which is basically a huge, huge, huge data centre for storing the results every time a bit of a genome is sequenced.

For example, today they showed me a project where tissue samples from people with rare cancers from across the globe are genome sequenced and then compared to the genetics of  skin stem cells  samples given by "normal" donors.   The aim of these projects is to try to find out which bit of the gene might carry the part which triggers the proteins which produce the cancer and then use that information to target a "drug" straight into that part of the gene to switch it off... (I'm not the medic in the family so I hope got the explanation sort of right).  The data from this type of study is then shared with other research organisations which want to look at details of specific bits of a genome.  Furthermore once data is analysed the stem cell lines grown from the tissue samples are the made available to other re medical researchers across the globe.

We had a long chat about proposed EU rules on data sharing.  The Sanger centre has worked with 90 other research organisations across the globe to produce a standard protocol (the "Alliance") for data sharing - with the support of patient groups.   

Sanger team members described another project looking at different bacteria - for example MRSA and TB.  Sanger explained how they had used studies of the genetics in a MRSA outbreak in a special care baby unit to work out exactly how the infection was being spread and then were able to stop the bug.   They believe it will soon become quite normal for a UK hospital to do a genetic sequencing of a TB bacteria in order to see exactly what strain and mutation it is and thus to work out where the patient got it from - this will then make it much easier to stop the spread of the disease.  Given increases in drug resistance, to combat diseases in the future it will be vital that hospitals share this sort of data.   FYI to give you an idea of how fast this technology has moved on 10 years ago it would have cost £250,000 to sequence one bacterium and taken 18 months.  Now it costs £50 and can be done overnight.  

As an MEP I be looking at the  international legislation and agreements on data sharing when the file comes to the full parliament in the autumn.   I am really glad that among the Conservative MEPs we have some experts in this area of the law.   Thank you to  The Sanger Centre and Wellcome Trust for teaching me today!

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