Genomics looks at the genes in our DNA and how they affect the human body, with genetic counsellors bearing responsibility for helping patients and their families adapt to newly diagnosed genetic conditions.
Healthcare genomics has been a key field of medicine in the UK for more than 30 years, but it was only formally recognised as a medical specialty in China in recent years, despite rapid developments in Chinese genetic research in the 2000s. The role of genetic counsellor is still not a profession in China.
With this in mind, a long-running collaboration between The University of Manchester and Peking University Health Sciences Centre (PKUHSC) has seen UK-based experts help Chinese healthcare professionals enhance their knowledge of genomic medicine to benefit more patients in China.
Professor Tao Wang
Tao is Professor of Molecular Medicine, with a special interest in the molecular basis of cardiovascular diseases, focusing on genetic small vessel diseases (SVD).
"In the UK, we have genetics doctors and counsellors in patient-facing roles, but there wasn't this specialty in China when the collaboration began in 2012," explains Professor Tao Wang, Professor of Molecular Medicine at Manchester and a PKUHSC graduate.
"Doctors need to learn some of the skills of a genetic counsellor to speak to patients. Chinese clinicians also require the knowledge and skills to interpret diagnostic tests from next-generation sequencing techniques that produce a large amount of genomic information requiring informatics technology to analyse it."
Upskilling Chinese healthcare professionals
The Manchester-PKUHSC collaboration saw the introduction of a blended PGCert programme in Clinical Genetics and Genetic Counselling specifically for Chinese healthcare professionals who wanted to add genomics to their healthcare skillset and learn to work within a multidisciplinary team.
The modules on the PGCert provided an overview of the human genetics and genomics field, as well as insights into the principles and practice of genetic counselling.
The course also looked at common and rare inherited diseases, and management for patients, with the final module consisting of a portfolio of cases gathered from students' workplaces.
Nearly 30 members of teaching staff from Manchester – including renowned genetics professors, consultant geneticists and genetic counsellors and senior clinical scientists – visited PUHSC over the years to deliver face-to-face teaching, supplemented by online learning.
Part of the teaching involved a video co-created by Manchester and PKUHSC with a group of Chinese patients with genetic kidney disease. The video featured a patient talking about his journey from initial symptoms to diagnosis. It showed how he and his family coped with the disastrous news and then were helped by genomics professionals throughout the process, and how the eventual establishment of a patient support group helped more families with the same condition.
Making an impact
The course came to an end when the COVID-19 pandemic restricted international travel, but it still made an impact during the years that it did run.
"Students really appreciated the skills they learned, and some have now established their own genetic counselling clinics," Professor Wang says, adding that some students have moved on to master's-level studies on genomic medicine-related subjects at Manchester.
"They in turn will be able to pass on their skills and knowledge to their colleagues," she explains. "Some of those students have already said our teachers are really dedicated and professional, and they have started to recommend others apply for Manchester degrees in other areas, so our reputation is widening."
“Students really appreciated the skills they learned, and some have now established their own genetic counselling clinics.”
Professor Tao Wang
Former students who took the PGCert course agree. "Before I attended this class, I only knew that genetic knowledge could help diagnosis and prenatal tests, but knew little about genetic counselling," says Xianghua Yu, who completed the course in 2017.
"Through this training, I not only learned that genetics helps clinical diagnosis but, more importantly, I also learned how to use genetics knowledge and results from genomic testing to help patients with their treatment, prognosis and genetic risk assessment."
There are other advantages to collaborating with the top medical university in China. Manchester staff have gained valuable international teaching experience and learned about dealing with genetic counselling scenarios within different culture and population structures, as well as gaining disease insights into a wider pool of genetic patients.
"Our genetic counsellors and geneticists have gathered so many cases, they can see a different patient cohort's view on genetic disease treatment/management," Professor Wang explains. "They've learnt a lot for their career development."
Learn more about Manchester's global health collaborations.