Over 40,000 new cancer cases or related tumours are diagnosed in Ireland every year, with the disease causing over 9,000 deaths annually.
We know cancer is a corrupted version of our healthy cells. Variants in our DNA change our cells until eventually they grow and divide uncontrollably, becoming cancers.
Imagine if we could identify how precisely these changes cause cancer, elucidating treatments that become focused on preventing the cancer in the first place.
Or that by understanding the genetic code of a person's cancer, we could develop a treatment personalised to them - rather than offering a 'one-size-fits-all' chemotherapy or radiation regime, which works for some people and not for others.
Thanks to genomic research we are now a step closer to that reality. The world greeted with excitement the landmark study into cancer published this week by more than 1,000 researchers and scientists from across 37 countries, members of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Consortium.
As a result of this genomic study, for more than 30 cancers being studied we now know what specific genetic changes are likely to happen, and when these are likely to take place. This means potentially finding cancers earlier, developing more targeted and precise therapies and delivering better outcomes for patients.
Genomics is the key to unlocking the potential of precision medicine.
At an inaugural Genomics Summit, co-hosted by Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI) and University College Dublin in Dublin last month, Howard Jacob, head of genomic research at AbbVie, defined precision medicine as simply about "giving clinicians the ability to make a better diagnosis in the person at the right time and to try to do it [the diagnosis] prospectively, not retrospectively. To try to make sure that the drug will work for the patient."
For example, 4pc of people living with cystic fibrosis are affected by a mutation known as G551D, and a new genomics-based drug, Ivacaftor, has been developed that is very effective in individuals with this mutation. Another drug developed as a result of genomics medicine is Keytruda, which is used to treat melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer.
By delivering better patient outcomes, genomics also has the potential to yield significant savings for the Irish health service. Faster diagnoses and earlier detection of disease will enable clinicians to intervene earlier and make better informed, targeted therapeutic decisions improving patient outcomes, reducing hospital stays and reducing the HSE's annual medicines bill.
Modern medicine needs to be research led and Ireland's clinical and research communities are alive to this potential. GMI is partnering with Irish clinical and research partners to study diseases which have a high incidence in Irish people, such as multiple sclerosis, to help unlock answers.
As Professor Mary King, from Temple Street Children's University Hospital, says "genome and exome sequencing has transformed the diagnostic odyssey for patients". Professor Owen Smith, of UCD and consultant at Children's Health Ireland, Crumlin, concurs saying that "we need to bring this revolution of genomics to the bedside quickly".
The establishment of a National Genetics and Genomic Medicine Network is welcome and a sign of the Government's commitment to genomics within the Irish public healthcare system. But it is clear we need to go further. We need a national genomics strategy and investment in support services such as genetic counsellors.
Developing a national genomics strategy must be government led.
It should include all voices from the research community, those at the coalface working in the Irish public healthcare system, patients and the private sector.
Public-private approaches to medical research are the norm across developed societies, as they enable faster, more cost-effective,
The opportunity for genomics is upon us, the question is what do we do about it.