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Faster DNA sequencing transforms HIV treatment

13 July 2020

Stock image of people working in a lab

A partnership that tackles HIV in Wales by applying faster DNA sequencing to mass patient testing has been recognised for innovation in bioscience.

Developed by Cardiff University School of Biosciences and Public Health Wales (PHW) NHS Trust, the system brings benefits to all HIV and TB patients in Wales.

Dr Thomas R. Connor, leader of the Microbiomes, Microbes and Informatics (MMI) research group at Cardiff University, teamed with PHW to apply genomics - the study of an organism's genetic blueprint – to create a national HIV clinical genomic diagnostic service as part of Genomics Partnership Wales, funded by Welsh Government.

The collaboration exploits Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) – a faster and cheaper way of sequencing RNA/DNA  – by applying it to the development and adoption of faster, more accurate tests for HIV and TB that help to ensure patients are given the correct drugs.

The partnership is one of six being highlighted by Cardiff University this summer for its ground-breaking innovation.

Dr Connor said: “We are delighted our partnership is being highlighted by Cardiff University. NGS is widely used for mapping the genetic code of microbiological samples in research. The challenge we faced was how to process, store and exploit the resulting data for use in public health – a setting that requires a robust, repeatable, accredited implementation.

We have been able to translate our research – covering rapid, sensitive and detailed genome sequencing and analysis - to improve service delivery, increase accuracy and decrease diagnostic time leading to improved treatment and patient management for all HIV-positive people in Wales.

Professor Thomas Connor Professor

Dr Tracey Cooper, Chief Executive Officer of Public Health Wales, said: “There are over 2,500 HIV patients in Wales, with 100-200 new diagnoses every year, all of whom rely on NGS for virus typing. This ground-breaking and innovative research, led by Cardiff University’s MMI Group, has applied NGS to public health for the first time, allowing PHW to provide truly personalised care to all HIV and TB patients in Wales with outstanding results.”

In addition to new genomic tests, the partnership also developed a better system for tracking the Influenza virus – providing a system that delivers one of the fastest influenza genomic flu reporting systems in the world. The approach helps the NHS in Wales to better respond during the flu season and contributes to vaccine design efforts globally.

Dr Connor is leading efforts in Wales, working with colleagues within PHW and Cardiff University to apply these same approaches to, map the spread of coronavirus as part of a £20m project announced by the UK’s chief scientific adviser.

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) builds directly on the HIV and Influenza work, with the Welsh sequencing hub of COG-UK having already sequenced, shared and analysed more than 5,000 COVID-19 genomes to date. This world leading work builds upon the successful collaboration between PHW and Cardiff University in order to respond to a global pandemic. This work is also having a real impact in Wales by providing analysis for everything from outbreak response to national tracking of the spread of COVID-19 in Wales and the UK.

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