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NIHR launches largest ever DNA and health research programme for children

By July 28, 2023No Comments

The NIHR BioResource is launching a new national childhood DNA health resource: The DNA, Children and Young People’s Health Resource (D-CYPHR).

This programme is the biggest health initiative of its kind in the UK, and a world first. It will enable researchers to explore the genetics of a range of diseases that begin, or have their origins, in childhood. This includes certain mental health conditions, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

D-CYPHR is led by the NIHR BioResource in partnership with the NHS, Anna Freud and the University of Cambridge.

The programme is open to any child and young person aged 0 to 15 in the UK. Each young person, with consent from their parent or guardian, donates a saliva sample and answers a health and lifestyle questionnaire. Identifying information is removed from the questionnaire and sample. They then join the resource.

By studying thousands of DNA samples together with health information, scientists can begin to see the big picture of how our genes and environment influence our health.

Researchers want to explore the genetics of a range of diseases to understand more about:

  • Developing new treatments for people and making these more individualised
  • What causes illnesses, and how to develop better treatment and care
  • How to identify illnesses early, avoid unnecessary medical tests and help people access treatment and support sooner

The D-CYPHR programme will support research into any health conditions that begin or have their origins in childhood, not just a specific condition or age group. This will include mental health conditions, diabetes, heart conditions, rare diseases, immune conditions and many more. It will also help researchers understand childhood development and what sets the foundations for a healthy life.

Supporting the programme’s launch, BBC presenter Dr Xand van Tulleken urged families to get involved: “There is no area of medicine more exciting or with more potential to transform our lives for the better than genetics… and now we urgently need research projects that support children’s health and we need children to volunteer to help!”

Many serious health conditions start in the first two decades of life. More than 1.7 million children in England alone suffer from long-term health conditions. However, most health research is carried out with adults meaning important opportunities to understand how diseases start and develop are missed.

Research has shown the power that understanding genetics can have on outcomes for a range of conditions and illness. This includes improvements to how diabetes is treated in children; and the national roll-out of whole genome sequencing for babies and children in intensive care, after it was found that children in intensive care frequently have a rare underlying genetic condition. Understanding genetics is vital in helping to understand and treat illness.

D-CYPHR aims to support this, while also mapping development in children and young people. The environment and experiences we have while growing up work together with genetics to affect our development, and the likelihood of getting diseases. The more we can understand about this through scientific research, the more treatments can be developed, and tailored to individuals. It even opens up the opportunity to spot problems earlier.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay said: “This pioneering genetic research programme is an exciting opportunity to advance our understanding of the causes of diseases and how they develop from childhood through to adulthood.

“By focusing on the DNA of children and young people we’ll be able to track how genetics affects a child’s development and build a picture of what might impact on their future health. As a result we’ll be able to develop more effective, bespoke treatments and even explore potential preventative measures for a wide range of conditions, including mental health issues and heart disease.