The rapid advances in genetic sequencing have opened up new opportunities for numerous companies. Blockchain could be the technology that allows genetic information to be shared securely across the planet. South Korean firm Macrogen recently announced that they would be working with Bigster to develop a platform to share genetic information safely.
Pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers could use access to genetic information in very positive ways. There is a tremendous advantage to be gained from having large amounts of human genetic information in an easily accessible form. Due to the sensitive nature of the data, it is difficult to create a database that offers both depth of information, and personal privacy.
Macrogen said they need to protect personal data, “against hacking, security risks, and the risk of privacy infringement.” They feel their platform,“must be stable enough to handle large amounts of [genetic] data.” The risk to a platform that stores huge amounts of genetic information is very real. It would likely be a target for private hackers, and also the subject of corporate espionage.
Genetic Information and Big Data
A few technologies are coming to maturity at the same time. Genetic sequencing is incredible on its own, but when it is combined with the kind of analytics that Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers researchers, the potential for rapid advances in medicine increase. AI can sift through huge amounts of data, and can find connections between genetics and other diagnostic information in a way that was never possible before, but create a safe way for that analysis to happen in a major challenge.
Macrogen is one of many firms looking for a way to tap into big data’s latent potential for medicine. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) just made a $300 million USD investment in 23andMe, which is a US based provider of genetic information. GSK clearly sees the value in accessing genetic information, which could be made more efficient via a blockchain-based platform that has a global reach.
The platform that Macrogen is working to launch will use a consortium network or permissioned blockchain, so that access can be limited to authorized parties. The number of people around the world that are having their genetics sequenced is on the rise, with estimates for 2018 coming in at around 17 million people. That represents a four-fold increase over last year.
The Medical Advantages
Macrogen is probably tapping into a major opportunity. Estimates put the amount invested by big data in healthcare and pharmaceutical companies this year at more than $4.5 billion USD. Easy and safe access to a growing database of genetic material could make this market even more attractive. Blockchain technology offers some unique advantages to patients, healthcare providers, and pharmaceutical companies.
Patients are likely in the best position to benefit, as their genetic information can help improve healthcare, and could be valuable to them as well. Blockchain-based records would allow patients to sell access to their genetics on a per-use basis to anyone that was interested, as long as they met certain requirements for informational safety.
In fact, EncrypGen, LunaDNA, Zenome and Nebula Genomics are all working with systems that could incentivise patients who share their genetics with clients. The advantages that an on-demand genetic database would deliver for researchers are significant. Fast access to large amounts of quality data would help both university and commercial research into many areas of medicine, and could also help doctors to diagnose genetic conditions that would be invisible otherwise.
Security is Paramount
The biggest concern from a security standpoint is how companies and researchers would be able to ensure that genetic data was kept safe, and patient privacy was airtight. Limited access to personal details would be one way to achieve this, and make sure that a person’s genetic data was never connected to their personal information, like names and addresses.
Blockchain could store genetic data in a way that would allow researchers to access the necessary parts of a person’s medical history, but not anything that would help identify them personally. Blockchain could also make sure that a person was paid for use of their data, so they can participate in the gains that a pharmaceutical company would derive from the research that genetic data would enable.