NHS hospitals could get DNA readers to help diagnose infectious diseases within five years, as the first publicly funded trial of the technology starts next week.
Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) will put handheld DNA readers supplied by biotech firm Oxford Nanopore through their paces to see if they can help doctors reach faster diagnoses for pneumonia.
It is one of the first big tests for Oxford Nanopore, a darling spin-out from the University of Oxford backed by investors including star fund manager Neil Woodford and IP Group.
UEA’s trial, conducted in conjunction with UCL, will pit Oxford Nanopore’s MinION reader against two other non-sequencing genetic tests, as well as conventional NHS treatments.
The Mars bar-sized MinION can sequence genomes in anything from minutes to two days depending on their size and complexity, supplying doctors with a genetic read-out that can help them pick effective treatments more quickly.
The trial is targeted at treatment of hospital-acquired pneumonia, which is responsible for 25pc of infection cases in intensive care units (ICU) and worsens patient survival chances.
The trio of genetic tests target the pathogen’s genes, rather than human genes, and should help doctors pick the best antibiotics to combat the pneumonia.
Dr Justin O’Grady, a lead scientist working on the trial at UEA, said: “At the moment doctors in ICU do not have the tools to rapidly and accurately identify bacteria causing pneumonia and so typically prescribe a broad spectrum of antibiotics through guesswork.
“We want to take the guesswork out of this.”
The trial is funded by public body the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and is designed to enable the most effective diagnostic tool to get fast-track approval for use in the NHS in around five to 10 years’ time.
The machines will be tested for a period of up to 18 months, before clinical trials begin in hospitals.
The trial officially began a year ago, but Oxford Nanopore’s devices were only added in in the last couple of months, replacing an earlier candidate, with testing of its machines just about to begin.
The news comes after Britain’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies last week urged the NHS and biotech firms to make genome sequencing standard practice on the NHS within five years.
Analysts believe the global genomics market could be worth up to £40bn a year.
Oxford Nanopore’s fortunes have come under the microscope in recent weeks as backer IP Group – which holds a significant stake in the company – pursues a hostile £400m-plus takeover of fellow innovation investor Touchstone.
IP Group’s swoop on Touchstone has been interpreted by some commentators as a defensive play in order to diversify its portfolio, given its exposure to Oxford Nanopore.