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As we mark its 50th anniversary, on the blog today Darrin Disley, CEO Horizon Discovery Group, details the importance of the deciphering of the genetic code.

This June, Horizon Discovery Group is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the 64 codons of the genetic code through which DNA’s information is translated into proteins, forming the key to all human life.

The project that led to the cracking of the code began with Marshall Nirenberg who, as a research biochemist working at the US National Institutes of Health, began looking at the problem of how to crack the RNA code. In 1961, Nirenberg and J. H. Matthaei published a landmark paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which showed that a synthetic messenger RNA can direct protein synthesis, the first step in the process of unravelling the code, which culminated in the identification of all 64 codons in 1966, the same year that Francis Crick showed for the first time a chart of the genetic code at a now famous lecture at the Royal Society.

Horizon25996Nirenberg and his colleagues went on to decipher the entire genetic code by matching amino acids to synthetic triplet nucleotides, eventually demonstrating that this code underpinned all life, for which they went on to share a Nobel prize with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert Holley, who were also working on genetic developments. Horizon, which offers tools and services for genomic research to customers in 50 countries, owes its existence to these discoveries.

Since this discovery, change in the field of human genomics has happened at light speed. The completion of the Human Genome Project, in 2003, sparked a gold-rush of innovation and discovery in the new field of genomics. In 2003, sequencing a human genome cost approximately $10 million and took months – it has now fallen to below $1,000 and takes a matter of days, making it affordable to business and academia.

The mine of information that genome sequencing has opened up has paved the way for key advances in our understanding of how our unique genetic make-up underpins our health, our susceptibility to disease and, critically, how we treat those diseases that have a genetic cause. Horizon is an expert in this field and we have been working at the forefront of these discoveries since we were founded by Dr. Chris Torrance and Professor Alberto Bardelli in 2007. Horizon’s gene editing capability provides a suite of products and tools which allow the healthcare industry to understand the significance of variations in the human genetic code and to develop drugs tailored to that unique code.

The impact of these discoveries on medicine is hard to overstate. Without the deciphering of the genetic code we would not have drugs like Herceptin or Perjeta, now administered to breast cancer patients who are found to over-express the HER2 receptor, and genetic screening is routinely used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. There has also been a seismic impact on research and development, both in academia and the pharmaceutical industry, as stratifying patient groups, and tailoring drugs to them appropriately, has already significantly shortened the time, and lowered the cost, of drug development.

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We work with customers throughout the value chain, from small academic labs up to Big Pharma, to provide tools and services which allow them to use genomics to drive their work. Although we have come a long way from the work of Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues, and understanding of human genes is part of the currency of modern medicine, there is still more we can to do to turn these discoveries into practical solutions to the challenge of disease. Horizon is at the forefront of this effort, supporting translational genomics from DNA sequence to patient treatment. We are also actively investigating the application of our technologies and expertise in several targeted areas of therapeutic development including immuno-oncology and cell therapy.

We have achieved a lot with the power of gene editing but the potential is infinite. At Horizon we are harnessing these technologies and building a leading British company that today is helping to enable research at all levels that will help to develop new treatments more efficiently, to support the better use of molecular diagnostics, and, most importantly, to improve the life of patients.

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