Blockchain in Genomics | MGC’s Contribution to Blockchain

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Genomic medicine is a new field of medicine that allows diagnosis, prognosis, and appropriate treatment of several genetic diseases using existing genetic data. However, the rise in genetic data also comes with a few problems, including data access, security, and privacy. This is where Blockchain comes in. Let’s learn about blockchain in Genomics.

Genetic Data

The human genome comprises about 1.5 GB of data. Some genetic disorders are rare and even some common disorders such as hypertension, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease have also been found to have a genetic susceptibility.

Using genomic mapping, scientists can gain a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in thousands of these rare diseases and common medical conditions.

Mapping results in allowing scientists to formulate appropriate solutions and interventions can then be developed. Poor access and the non-interoperability of such data has always been and continues to be, a problem in healthcare.

More than a decade after the human genome project was completed, technological advances have made it much more affordable to have one’s genome sequenced, and genetic information profiled.

Oftentimes, genomic data does not have a clearly identified owner, rendering such information susceptible to indiscriminate sharing, creating privacy issues for the actual owner. This large volume of available genetic data, in the absence of strong systems for security and authentication, poses serious concerns which can be addressed by the novel blockchain technology.

Role of Blockchain

Blockchain is a digitalized public ledger of transactions and data stored as blocks. It provides a decentralised network of distributable data that can be shared between interconnected database systems.

Blockchain technology uses a timestamped immutable system of blocks that contain data, making them accessible to anyone with a connected system, anywhere in the world, as long as they receive proper authorization.‍

This technology gives users control over the distribution of their data, thereby protecting its privacy. Using Public Key Cryptography, users can encrypt their data for added security. However, in the event of selling or sharing data, the receiver is granted a private key to decrypt the information, preventing unauthorised individuals from gaining access to the data.

Blockchain provides a platform for direct interaction between data providers (users) and buyers (pharma companies, research institutes). In addition, the cryptographic keys also maintain the anonymity of users during data exchange.

These buyers, in turn, can utilize the information sets to study genetic patterns in a given population, enabling the development of drugs and other therapies based on the genetic profiles analyzed.

Using cryptographic blocks, blockchain reduces the risk of data modification and tampering, providing an authentic database for research purposes, and for the development of new diagnostics and treatment options for rare disorders.

Once data on DNA sequencing is added to a blockchain database, it becomes a block marked with a timestamp. Each block is then cryptographically linked to other blocks in the chain to prevent data tampering. In addition, blockchain technology gives data owners control over what information to share and with whom it is shared in smart contracts.

Challenges in genomics

The total cost of using genome sequencing in routine clinical care is very high for practical purposes, and likely surpasses $1000/genome in a single laboratory. This situation makes participation in a specific sequencing project tougher.

Another challenge in the field of genomics is data management. This further deals with the following four critical issues: (i) collection, (ii) sharing, (iii) ownership, and (iv) storage.

Researchers put a lot of effort into data collection. Thus, numerous data collection methods are proposed to conduct high-quality research. Also, special attention should be paid to details and the results should be accurately recorded and interpreted.

Genomic data sharing is also a very sensitive issue since genomic data carry private information about an individual’s past, present, and future. Data storage must be done safely because genomic data could be misused for crimes or to manufacture harmful medicines.

People want to ensure that their personal data is kept at high-level protection and privacy and are afraid that they won’t be able to control data access permissions and whether full anonymity could be provided.

In this respect, recently, blockchain technology has picked up significant attention in diverse fields, including genomics. Since it offers a radical solution for these problems from a different perspective: distributed, secure and immutable system. It has the potential to solve several security and agreement issues. It can also revolutionise data sharing and secure computing in a public network, blockchain-based platforms have a snowball effect.

General structure of blockchain technology

Blockchain is an indefectible distributed ledger of transactions and its currently best known applications are Bitcoin and Ethereum. It works on a chain model which is traceable and transparent but could not be broken. Blockchain allows decentralised operation, so it prevents single-point-of-failure with a distributed timestamp mechanism.

In this network, transactions can be directly and safely executed among all participants. Consensus-based decision-making is more effective than single authority-based decision-making which is why it is adapted by blockchain. Like  this, the power distribution in a group is equalised. In blockchain structure, the transactions are processed on the blocks with their hash values instead of using the original data.

In the blockchain network, each block holds the hash value of the previous block like a chain structure and this structure creates immutability. Also, in blockchain systems, all users use their public and private keys instead of using their real identities for identification. While the public keys can be known to anyone, private keys are unique for each user and are used to sign the transactions. Hence, private keys must be protected and kept safely.

Thus, the very first version of the blockchain, the bitcoin network, is called pseudo-anonymous. Miners pick up a set of waiting transactions and try to create a proper block that provides the solution to a given cryptographic puzzle.

Research

Blockchain holds a lot of potential in the field of genomics, however, more research is required to appropriately exploit this potential. In prescribed drugs, it can help maintain patient records and prevent identity frauds. Inpatient studies, recording ordering, and associated clinical information can be further stored on blockchain to ensure data integrity and prove its credibility.

MGC’s Contribution to Blockchain

Medical Genomics, a Boston-based research company, focuses on the genomic process and safety testing of strains of cannabis for medical functions. MGC and its parent company Courtagen Life Sciences are concerned with the sequencing of the genomes of patients with seizure disorders. Research has found connections between such conditions and also the endocannabinoid system. MGC is further studying marijuana as a treatment for them.

A central server for information will serve an identical purpose, however, it also raises the issues of trust. This centralised data belongs to a company or organisation, and businesses might question its neutrality or responsibleness. Blockchain is shared among several parties, therefore and is immutable, hence no party will alter it. This makes blockchain the perfect choice, because the data is immutable and we won’t lose records without detection.

Companies Pioneering the Blockchain-Genomics Infusion

1. DNAtix is an Israeli Biotech company, which uses blockchain to enable data exchange and genomic sequencing. DNAtix built its own blockchain system to allow the anonymous transfer of DNA information.

2. Shivom is a genomics and precision medicine company, leading the way in the utilisation of Blockchain technology in genomic medicine. The company developed a Unique Global Genome ID that links DNA data to the owner of the DNA sequence within the blockchain database system.

Shivom also developed the Omix Token (OMX), a currency for the exchange of data. OMX is used to incentivize DNA data upload and exchange, allowing users to, in turn, obtain certain products and services.

Blockchain technology may be new, but it is already bringing about a major revolution in the healthcare industry, especially in the field of genomic medicine. As the technology gains widespread use in genomics, more and more researchers will be able to gain a deeper understanding of disease mechanisms. This knowledge will help the development of better therapies and interventions for a wide variety of diseases while maintaining data privacy and security.

Conclusion

In this article, we gained some knowledge about genomics, what it entails and how far science has come in the field. We also got a basic introduction of Blockchain and we discussed what role blockchain plays (or has the potential to play) in the genomics industry. We then reflected on some companies already pioneering the blockchain genomics industry and learnt how revolutionary the concept really is.

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