Genomics Master’s series: joining the revolution

Doctor Imran Rafi talks about his experience as a funded student on our new Master’s in Genomic Medicine at Cambridge University

I have just finished my second one-week module on the Master’s course at Cambridge. I’m a GP, and you may wonder why I would want to delve into the whole genome, exploring sequencing methods and learning more about bioinformatics and the clinical applications of genomic data.

I’ve had an interest in genetics for many years, and this has grown with the rapid developments in genomics. Over 10 years ago, I was looking for a good audit project when I was doing a public health medicine course, and I met a friendly genetics consultant at St George’s, University of London who was happy to support me. I later went on to job share a post as a GP with a specialist interest in genetics, and I have been involved in teaching genetics relevant for primary care since then.

In that time, I have had excellent support from the geneticists at St George’s, including recently Katie Snape and Kate Tatton-Brown, who have been involved in the development of an excellent online course in genomics which is freely accessible and currently running for the second time on the Futurelearn platform.

GPs in genomics

There are some excellent GPs out there flying the flag, such as Nadeem Qureshi, who is based in Nottingham as a primary care-based genetics researcher working with Joe Kai; Fiona Walter, researcher at Cambridge; Jude Hayward from Bradford, who is involved in clinical genetics service delivery; and John Spicer, who has taught on genetics and ethics.

However, attention is turning to mainstreaming genetics, as rapid advances in technology bring the idea of personalised medicine ever closer. There have been some great successes, including tailored treatments for patients with cancer and a number of other conditions, and a greater understanding of the genetic basis of disease. Undoubtedly, though, there is much more to come. Although it’s easy to get wrapped up in the science and technology, it is the patients and families who might benefit from an increased understanding of genomics who must be at the forefront of our minds.

Getting qualified

Recently I read about Genomics England, the 100,000 Genomes Project, and the consequent need for the NHS to respond by training up its workforce. As a GP, I feel that primary care should be involved in one way or another. I knew that Health Education England (HEE) had set up the Master’s in Genomic Medicine and had funded nine excellent universities to deliver the course, with the option of a postgraduate certificate or diploma in medical genomics. The selected universities will also be offering CPPD modules, in an attempt to spread genomic knowledge to healthcare professionals who can’t commit to the full Master’s.

I was very happy to be awarded one of HEE’s funded places, and I highly recommend looking into it if you are interested. The entry requirements are quite flexible and are tailored to admit a range of NHS working staff as well as researchers. There are around 20 people on my cohort from a wide variety of backgrounds, including research nurses, clinicians and laboratory clinical scientists. I am the only GP on the course at Cambridge, and I’d be really interested to know of anyone else from primary care taking the Master’s elsewhere.

Theory and practice

The course to date has been excellent. We are a diverse student group and the organisers are mindful of that. We have had a recap on the basics, and my hazy undergraduate genetics knowledge surfaces intermittently! We have had a good range of lectures and more practical sessions, including the opportunity to delve into the databases that support data around genes and diseases.

The best part of the course for me has been dressing up in a lab coat and processing DNA using pipettes and solutions! It’s been great fun, but there is a firm commitment needed to complete the course. There are six core modules, as well as a range of optional modules – all assessed by an assignment essay – and a research project to undertake.

Time to make a difference

The course presents the opportunity to learn more about this burgeoning subject and ultimately contribute to the transformation of healthcare in the UK. Once you delve into genomics you realise how wonderful and complex the human body is, and that, despite incredible and rapid advances in technology over recent years, we are still just scratching the surface.

I want to learn more and apply my knowledge to real patients who could benefit. There will be lots of educational programmes and research projects over the coming years, and completing the course will, I’m sure, offer lots of opportunities. Now is the time to join the revolution!

Imran Rafi is a GP based in Surrey, and Senior Lecturer in Primary Care Education at St George’s, University of London. He is also Chair of Clinical Innovation and Research (CIRC) at the Royal College of General Practitioners. He is a primary care genomics champion working as part of the Royal College of Physicians’ Genomics in Mainstream Medicine working group, facilitated by the Genomics Education Programme and PHG Foundation. He is happy to be contacted via email.

Are you interested in applying for a funded place on the HEE Master’s programme in Genomics Medicine? Click here to find out more!

Please note: This article is for informational or educational purposes, and does not substitute professional medical advice.