How to Digitize Your Genome, Blockchain Style
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s time to start buying in to the fantasy of genetic editing.
Hossein Rahnama is a recognized figure in ubiquitous computing and is the founder and CEO of Flybits, a cloud-based, context-as-a-service solution.
The notion of editing DNA has left the realm of science fiction and become a reality. With the CRISPR-Cas9 tool, editing genetic material has become a fairly straightforward process, enabling everyone from high school students to amateur scientists to get in on the action in the coming years.
Yeah, but isn’t it prohibitively expensive? No, you can now sequence someone’s whole genome for less than $5,000, a price that continues to drop, making the market potential huge. Less straightforward is the task of securing all this genetic information digitally. Blockchain technology enables transaction security for the anonymous currency Bitcoin and provides protection for the most personal of data.
Once people take ownership of their information, using it can be as simple as placing your finger or retina over a scanner.
An individual’s genetic material is perhaps the most unique part of his identity, detailing visible traits like hair and eye color, personality variations or susceptibility to diseases. The ability to store this data means genomic information is no longer reserved for people in white lab coats: It can potentially be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.
If people with similar genetic makeups are prone to similar diseases, we could potentially map out where a seasonal virus like the flu will be the most severe. Sequencing the genome of a human embryo could tell us how likely it is to develop certain health issues and could help parents take steps to prevent them.
While all this information is incredibly personal, blockchain technology has the potential to keep it safe. Regardless of your stance on Bitcoin, storing your genome in a blockchain could give you the power to share it as you see fit, instead of letting Google, Facebook and other platforms host it. It would also allow medical researchers access to an anonymous web of billions of genetic sequences, letting them use pattern-matching processes to determine which genes make individuals susceptible to certain diseases and which genes create a natural resistance.
Imagine being matched in your 20s to someone in his or her 60s or 70s with a very similar genetic sequence. Their health decisions will be right in front of you, so when they tell you smoking, alcohol abuse, etc., cost them dearly, it would mean far more than WebMD telling you these habits are bad. A combination of humans, machines and data, in other words, will help paint a pretty clear picture of what’s to come.
Current Security Measures
Currently, Health Level Seven International regulates the transfer of patient health data, but even more personal data like an individual genome will likely result in more regulations. The genetic screening company 23andMe has gotten 10 tests approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help individuals identify certain genetic risk factors to which they are susceptible.
Over time, the regulations surrounding 23andMe will set the precedent for rules regarding personal health information. Until then, keep your credit card number close and your gene sequence closer. A gene sequence is valuable to others: Google probably already knows how often you get your hair cut, but imagine a world that sells information to, say, Gillette on how fast your hair may grow. If you think that’s creepy, let’s take it further: Perhaps your preferred insurance firm decides not to insure you because you’re predisposed to a certain type of cancer with astronomical treatment costs. Instead, it’ll offer coverage to individuals who have more desirable genetic makeups, like genetically healthy folks who will die of ultimately inexpensive heart attacks in their 60s.
As scary as that sounds, blockchain data can prevent this.
How to Get There
As fun and innovative as this all sounds, particulars — how to and who will build it, how it’s being paid for, etc. — need to be ironed out.
Teams of people from universities and research institutes can join forces to solidify blockchain technology before turning control of the genetic material back over to the owners of the genetic information. Once people take ownership of their information, using it can be as simple as placing your finger or retina over a scanner.
Each of those options makes it easy to use for owners of the information, and more difficult for potential identity thieves to steal. The downside? Blockchain technology, much like the cloud, can still be vulnerable to hacking and other breaches.
Cost of construction could vary but will undoubtedly decrease as demand for the product increases. Owning and using your information could fall under a subscription model, where users pay an annual fee to use their genetic information however they see fit. All these details point to genomic data and blockchain technology’s partnership being a reality sooner rather than later. Within the next decade, I believe all the pros, cons and financial unknowns will be squared away, and this technology will be brought to the masses.
Only Constant Is Change
Whatever your view, digitization of genetic information will inevitably become a reality, and the availability of large-scale genetic information has the capacity to change how the health industry works in numerous ways.
From the ego-centric standpoint, individuals can get more personalized treatment for everything from allergies to diseases, whereas health care providers can infer how a person will react to certain treatments or medications by examining how people with similar genetic makeups responded.
More broadly, genetic research can be done on a vast scale. Imagine tapping into the Facebook of genomic data, with potentially billions of participants instead of a few hundred individuals from one place. The research opportunities are massive, and pattern analysis could contribute significantly to medical research, improving the lives of human beings across the globe. This will be a great convergence of data science and genomics, combined with our learnings around using social computation.
Genomic data is more sensitive than any other personal information. While $5,000 for genomic sequencing means the process is still out of reach of the masses, this price will only decrease. The widespread storage of genetic information will necessitate a new means of protection, and blockchain technology has the potential to service that nicely.