The Public Health Genetics Unit was established in Cambridge in 1997 because it was clear that, generally, public health doctors and policymakers were ignorant of the sciences of genetics and molecular biology, and their public health and policy implications.

The unit has£160,000 a year funding for five years from local purchasers and Anglia and Oxford region's research and development directorate. It is endorsed by Cambridge University's faculty board of clinical medicine and is part of the Institute of Public Health in Cambridge.

The director is accountable to a steering group, chaired by the health authority chief executive, with representatives from local purchasers, the clinical school, the regional genetics centre and regional office. The unit's staff, all part-time, are employed by the HA and comprise a consultant in public health medicine, a chief knowledge officer and an administrator.

The PHGU is based at the Strangeways Research Laboratory, which houses IPH research groups working on genetic epidemiology and cancer genetics.

The unit's work is aimed at the NHS and, more specifically, public health professionals, clinical staff, managers and policymakers. It has paid particular attention to establishing an NHS infrastructure to debate genetics issues, and to setting up educational programmes.

Regional public health directors, and the chief medical officers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have nominated public health consultants to act as contact points for genetic issues. These nominees now form the backbone of the Public Health Genetics Network, which includes representatives of the British Society for Human Genetics, the Medical Research Council, the Genetic Interest Group, the Welsh Institute of Health and Social Care, the Health Education Authority, the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health.

The PHGU has hosted a regional meeting for East Anglia on the new genetics and the NHS, and is to hold local meetings in HAs. Discussions are under way for a summer school aimed at senior managers, civil servants, public health doctors, senior GPs and nurses.