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Entrepreneurs: Meet Professor Sir Peter Donnelly, Founder of Genomics

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Would you like to be tested to find out which life-threatening diseases based on your genetic makeup you are most likely to develop? Or do you prefer to face the future in ignorant bliss? It’s a divisive question that we asked the founder of the biotechnology start-up Genomics, Professor Sir Peter Donnelly.

The academic-turned-entrepreneur from the University of Oxford, who became one of the country’s youngest professors in 1988, created the university’s start-up in 2014 with fellow experts.

The company has since developed a test that has the potential to improve personalized medicine and help save lives and NHS resources.

Genomics technology examines patients’ UKTN and uses an algorithm to help calculate their risk of disease. The technology is being tested in a new NHS pilot project with 1,000 volunteers, focused on heart disease, and Sir Peter told The Standard that a similar trial with around 5,000 patients between the ages of 40 and 60 is due to start at Stanford hospitals in California this summer.

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It could usher in a new era of preventive medicine – one that could empower patients and save the NHS money. Treating someone with heart disease costs a lot more than keeping patients from getting sick in the first place.

Volunteers in the trial undergo a blood test, and Genomics technology uses an algorithm to help analyze their genetic patterns. Certain genetic patterns have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack later in life – and they can occur in people who currently have no symptoms of the disease.

Patients will be given a personal ‘polygenic risk score’ (PRS), which will be examined with a clinical risk prediction tool currently used by the NHS that examines factors such as a person’s BMI and cholesterol levels.

Sir Peter said: “This is yet another example of the NHS leading the world with this lawsuit.

Other genetic patterns have been linked to an increased risk of other diseases – from breast cancer to multiple sclerosis.

Isn’t he worried that if the tests are rolled out some patients will just say, “You know what, I’d rather not know if I’m at risk”?

“I understand why someone would be a little worried,” said Sir Peter. “It’s important to say that these are just risk factors. If you have a high PRS score for heart disease, you’re about 4 to 5 times more likely to get it.

Originally backed by late securities picker Neil Woodford, the company just completed a $ 30million (£ 22million) fundraiser to fund further testing and research, which has been grossly oversubscribed. The backers included the US life sciences investment firms F-Prime Capital and Foresite Capital.

Sir Peter said that after decades of working in academia it’s a very different experience having to turn investors away and the start-up plans to raise more cash in the future to grow further in the world.

“This money is used to finance the next stage of our growth,” he said. “We think so [the test] will be transformational.

“There are opportunities all over the world, especially in developed health systems … The standard hospital system [trial] is the first pilot in the United States.

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