Most people eager to know the secrets of their genetics

Largest survey of public attitudes shows perceived value of genomic data

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A survey of nearly 7000 people has revealed that 98 per cent want to be informed if researchers using their genetic data stumble upon indicators of a serious preventable or treatable disease. The study, which comes after the Government’s announcement that Genomics England will sequence 100,000 genomes by 2017, begins an important and on-going conversation about how our genomic data is used.

The results show that genomic data has a perceived value to participants even if it is not currently clear what the information means for health outcomes. However, in general, the majority of people were interested in clinically actionable data and genetic professionals surveyed were concerned about returning data that cannot yet be interpreted accurately.

“The advent of fast, efficient genetic sequencing has transformed medical research over the past decade and it’s set to revolutionise clinical care in the future. Policy surrounding the use of genetic data in research and clinical settings must be directed by the views and experiences of the public, patients, clinicians, genetic health professions and genomic researchers. This study represents a first step in informing people of the issues and gathering their responses.”

Dr Anna Middleton First author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

The usefulness of findings was an important consideration for the majority of respondents, who were drawn from 75 countries around the world. The majority of participants wanted to receive information about serious conditions, even if the risk of developing the condition was as low as 1 per cent. However, fewer people were interested in receiving results for less serious conditions.

“When we asked patients and families how much they want to know about their genetic information their immediate reaction was that whatever information the researchers or clinicians found out, they wanted to know too. But there can be no one size fits all. We need to make sure that there is enough information and support available to allow individuals to make an informed choice about what is right for their situation. We need to remember this information belongs to the individual and they should be able to decide for themselves what they do and don’t find out about their health – which means we need to start thinking about how this can be recognised.”

Alastair Kent OBE Director of Genetic Alliance UK, a charity that works to improve the lives of people affected by genetic disorders

Of the interest groups surveyed, genetic health professionals were five times more likely than other groups to think that incidental findings, results that are not the main focus of a research project but may be of clinical importance, should not be shared. Both genetic health professionals and genomic researchers were more likely to think that information about ancestry should not be shared.

“Genetic health professionals are acutely aware of the challenges posed by interpreting genetic information accurately and communicating results to patients. There are still so many unknowns; having key indicators for a disease in your genetic code may not necessarily mean that you will develop that disease. Much of the information in our personal genetic codes is currently uninterpretable and of uncertain clinical significance. It will take many years of research before we know how to use much of this data for clinical benefit. As this knowledge is gained, our survey will help researchers and health policy makers to plan accordingly.”

Dr Helen Firth An author from the Department of Clinical Genetics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital

The survey was conducted as part of the Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD) project, which seeks to find genetic diagnoses for rare developmental disorders using patients’ sequence data. The DDD project did not search this data for disease indicators and only returned results likely to be linked to the patients’ disorders. This fits well with the findings of the survey as, while participants were keen to learn about their genetics, the majority did not think researchers should be required to actively search for key indicators of disease in genomic data if it would reduce the time and resources spent on medical research.

More information


The DDD study presents independent research commissioned by the Health Innovation Challenge Fund [grant number HICF-1009-003], a parallel funding partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health.

Participating Centres

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Kings College London, The University of Melbourne, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, University of Oxford


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Selected websites

  • Deciphering Developmental Disorders

    The Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD) study aims to find out if using new genetic technologies can help doctors understand why patients get developmental disorders. To do this we have brought together doctors in the 24 Regional Genetics Services, throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland, with scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

  • The Health Innovation Challenge Fund

    The Health Innovation Challenge Fund is positioned as a translational funding scheme to accelerate the clinical application of projects that are well advanced along the development pathway. Its objectives are to:

    • Stimulate the development and uptake of innovative products, technologies and interventions for the benefit of patients in the NHS and other healthcare systems.
    • Support UK-led projects, which target unmet, or poorly met, healthcare needs.
    • Provide translational funding for projects that have demonstrated ‘proof-of-principle’ and have the potential for early clinical use or adoption;
    • Take the product, technology or intervention to the stage at which it is sufficiently developed to be attractive to follow-on funders or investors.
    • Encourage the collaboration of companies, academia and clinicians to better confront today’s healthcare challenges.
  • The Department of Health

    The Department of Health (DH) helps people to live better for longer. We lead, shape and fund health and care in England, making sure people have the support, care and treatment they need, with the compassion, respect and dignity they deserve. DH is a ministerial department, supported by 25 agencies and public bodies.

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

  • The Wellcome Trust

    The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. We are independent of both political and commercial interests.