Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) is the most fundamental change in the molecular analysis of pathogens since polymerase chain reaction. In this session at the UK Bioscience Forum, experts from a variety of organisations discussed how advances in NGS technologies are revolutionising the way disease outbreaks are monitored.
Dr Catherine Arnold, Honorary Senior Lecturer at UCL and Head of the Genomic Services and Development Unit at Public Health England (PHE), opened the session by outlining the work of PHE and introduced one of its key priorities as ‘protecting the public’s health from infectious diseases and other hazards to health’. She described how NGS will transform public health and clinical microbiology through faster and more cost-effective methods for identifying and tracking infectious disease outbreaks. PHE are accelerating the application of these technologies to improve the treatment of individuals and support the wider control of disease. The first public health NGS service has been set up and to date almost 18,000 genomes have been sequenced by the centralised service. She described how early experiences with outbreak investigations such as tuberculosis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections have been very positive and indicate many of the benefits of NGS are likely to be realised.
Dr Bharat Patel, Consultant Medical Microbiologist, Public Health England and Honorary Consultant Medical Microbiologist, Barts Health NHS Trust, used Pseudomonas aeruginosa as an example of real-time outbreak investigation using whole genome sequencing. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common Gram-negative bacterium that can cause a wide range of infections particularly in those with a weakened immune system. It is resistant to many commonly-used antibiotics and in a hospital setting the bacterium can contaminate devices such as respiratory equipment and catheters. Whole genome sequencing and cluster analysis of Pseudomonas aeruginosa has enabled identification and tracking of outbreaks and resistance patterns.
Throughout the session, Dr Gordon Sanghera and Oliver Hartwell from Oxford Nanopore Technologies were demonstrating sequencing of Clostridium difficile on the MinION™ device. The minion is a USB stick single molecule sequencer that can sequence DNA as well as protein sensing. It does not use PCR or chemical labels and is capable of a read length of 6-7 kb. The reads from individual molecules can be compiled to build a consensus; highlighting the flexibility of the device. In addition to increasing portability, technologies such as this are playing a part in the genomic revolution by simplifying sample preparation and workflows.
Finally, Dr Hilary Burton, Director of the PHG Foundation gave insight into how NGS technologies can be implemented in health services. The PHG Foundation is a health policy think tank with a focus on how genomics and other emerging health technologies can provide more effective personalised healthcare and deliver improvements in population health. She discussed how a coordinated effort between PHE, the NHS, academia and industry is required to promote technology transfer of products appropriate for the health service, aligning to the foundation’s aim of ‘making science work for health’.