Foreign hackers have made multiple attempts to steal the genetic details of thousands of NHS patients that are being guarded at a top-security military base.
Officials overseeing the Genomics England project hope to map the genes of more than a million NHS patients so they can be informed if they have any rare diseases.
They revealed the project had successfully fended off a number of well-documented cyber-attacks including some ‘from overseas’.
The news, which follows the Wannacry attack that hit the NHS in 2017, will fuel concerns about the safety of the data.
Experts say it could be used to identify individual patients and potentially even blackmail them by exposing their sensitive health conditions health conditions.
Campaign group MedConfidential told The Telegraph the attacks ‘almost certainly’ came from Russia or China.
But Sir John Chisholm, Chair of Genomics England, insisted the data was well defended on servers at MoD Corsham, in Wiltshire, which is home to the Joint Forces Command’s Information Systems and Services unit.
‘Of course we receive attacks, some originating from overseas, and we regularly test to ensure that none succeed,’ he said.
‘A key feature of the project is that an individual’s data will not be released. Instead, de-identified data is analysed by research users within the secure, monitored environment.
‘None of the well-known viral attacks have succeeded in causing any dysfunction in Genomics England.’
Data from the genomes are being stored both to benefit the 85,000 patients who contributed their DNA and to assist medical research.
Everyone involved in the study was known to have an illness, but it discovered around 6,000 people had other conditions they didn’t know about before.
The researchers say everyone in the UK should routinely have their DNA tested, but warn of significant ethical implications of such a move.
There are fears that patients will regret learning they have or are likely to develop a terminal illness, and that the information could be misused by insurance companies.
A genome is all of a person’s DNA, including their genes and any DNA which does not make up genes but could influence how diseases affect them.
Before the testing could be rolled out across the country, experts say a debate about the ethics of it will be needed.
Sir John predicted people’s genetic information will one day be used alongside health-tracking technology.
For example, wearable devices which record information like blood sugar levels and heart rate could be combined with DNA to follow people’s health.
‘Twenty years from now I can imagine the digital world is going to gallop on in medicine and the things coming up, like wearables, will be linked to a genomic infrastructure so we can get ahead of diseases,’ he said.
Professor Mark Caulfield, chief scientist at the organisation added genome sequencing could be used ‘to spot things before they happen to someone and thereby avoid harm’.
And the results of the landmark mission so far have already shown potential for helping to diagnose rare diseases.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock today announced the project was a success and said it heralds a new era for medicine.
‘We are leading the world in genomics,’ Mr Hancock said.
‘And this is a major milestone in our mission to provide truly personalised care to help patients live longer, healthier and happier lives.
‘I’m incredibly excited about the potential of this type of technology to unlock the next generation of treatments, diagnose diseases earlier and enable patients to take greater control of their own health.’
While experts say genome sequencing could become an everyday part of healthcare, they say more research and testing needs to be done first.
Suggestions of a similar project in Dubai in March sparked fears people’s records could be used to discriminate against them by the Government and police.
Currently, the project is focusing on 17 cancers, including both common and rare forms, and around 1,200 rare diseases which affect both children and adults.
The number of genomes sequenced is higher than the number of people because some patients had more than one taken.
Mr Hancock and the project organisers now have their sights set on bigger things, and hope to sequence up to five million genomes within the next five years.
‘The sequencing of 100,000 whole genomes marks an extraordinary UK achievement that is transforming the application of genomics in our NHS,’ Professor Caulfield added.
Genomics England ran the project alongside the NHS and the Government.
The organisation set up centres across the country where computers have analysed 300 patient genomes a day for the past six years.
Professor Caulfield said: ‘Genomics England will continue to analyse these genomes alongside life course clinical information to reveal answers for as many participants as possible and improve their NHS care.’
Experts mapping the genomes expect to find ways in which DNA changes in a way that can trigger or worsen disease, or cause bad reactions to certain medicines.
The 100,000 Genomes Project is a big step forward in tapping into this treasure trove of medical data.
By understanding how people’s DNA affects their health, doctors may even be able to predict health problems.
Sir John added yesterday: ‘Today is a joyous day.
‘At launch the project was a bold ambition to corral the UK’s renowned skills in genomic science and combine them with the strengths of a truly national health service in order to propel the UK into a global leadership position in population genomics.
‘With this announcement, that ambition has been achieved.
‘The results of this will be felt for many generations to come as the benefits of genomic medicine in the UK unfold.’
Since 2002, when the first human genome was sequenced, the cost of the process has plummeted from £25bn ($3.2billion) to just £500.
As the cost falls further whole genome sequencing will become more commonplace and wide-ranging, said the project leaders.