Up to 100,000 Britons suffering from cancer and rare diseases are to have their genetic codes fully sequenced and mapped as part of government plans to build a DNA database to boost drug discovery and development.
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday he wanted Britain to "push the boundaries" of scientific research by being the first country to introduce genetic sequencing into a mainstream health service.
His government has set aside 100 million pounds ($160 million) for the project in the taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS) over the next three to five years.
"Britain has often led the world in scientific breakthroughs and medical innovations, from the first CT scan and test-tube baby through to decoding DNA," he said in a statement.
"It is crucial that we continue to push the boundaries and this new plan will mean we are the first country in the world to use DNA codes in the mainstream of the health service."
The government said building a database of DNA profiles will give doctors more advanced understanding of a patient's genetic make-up, their illness and their treatment needs. This should help those who are sick get access to the right drugs and more personalized care more quickly.
The database should also help scientists develop new drugs and other treatments which experts predict "could significantly reduce the number of premature deaths from cancer within a generation", Cameron's office said in a statement,
"By unlocking the power of DNA data, the NHS will lead the global race for better tests, better drugs and above all better care," Cameron said.
"If we get this right, we could transform how we diagnose and treat our most complex diseases not only here but across the world, while enabling our best scientists to discover the next wonder drug or breakthrough technology."
Some critics of the project, known as the "UK genome plan", have voiced concerns about how the data will be used and shared with third parties, including with commercial organizations such as drug companies.
Genewatch, a campaign group fighting for genetic science and technologies to be used in the public interest, has said anyone with access to the database could use the genetic codes to identify and track every individual on it and their relatives.
Cameron's office stressed, however, that the genome sequencing would be entirely voluntary and patients will be able to opt out without affecting their NHS care. It added the data would be "completely anonymised before it is stored".
The government's chief medical officer Sally Davies said the new project and the 100 million pounds of funding for it "opens up the possibility of being able to look at the three billion DNA pieces in each of us so we can get a greater understanding of the complex relationship between our genes and lifestyle."