Using Blockchain in Genomics

genomics blockchain scaled
genomics blockchain

Blockchains offer a reliable way to establish the provenance of information. A record added to a properly maintained blockchain is irrevocable, unmodifiable, and time-stamped. That’s a strong guarantee that the information existed at the time indicated. It lets a creator establish the existence of prior art on a specified data and avoid errors or falsifications.

Participants are issued digital IDs and private keys, and any records they place on the blockchain are digitally signed. They can’t subsequently revoke the records or plausibly claim they didn’t create them.

Blockchain and Genomics Research

These features can be valuable in genomics. An article in Bio-IT World, “How Blockchain Is Helping Genomics Research,” discusses current work in the area. In pharmaceuticals, new strains are constantly developed and people claim patents on them. A record of a genome unambiguously shows who entered it and when. In patient studies, recording a genome and associated clinical information can make information widely available while guaranteeing its authenticity and integrity.

MGC’s blockchain approach

Medical Genomics, a Boston-based company, is “using the blockchain for proof of existence.” One of its areas of focus is genomic fingerprinting and safety testing of strains of cannabis for medical purposes. MGC and its parent company Courtagen Life Sciences are involved in sequencing the genomes of patients with seizure disorders. Research has found connections between such conditions and the endocannabinoid system, and MGC is studying marijuana treatment for them.

MGC proposes to let participants record genetic information on strains of cannabis they are working with. If a patent later lays claim on that genome, the record will show an earlier description of it. Some companies, known as patent trolls, file dubious patents for the sole purpose of collecting licensing fees. Without such convincing evidence of prior art, it’s difficult to challenge a troll’s claim. Kevin McKernan, the Chief Security Officer of MGC, calls this a way to “digitally notarize” a genome.

A central database can serve a similar purpose, but it has problems of trust. It belongs to some company or organization, and businesses may question its neutrality or reliability. A blockchain is shared among many parties, so none of them can alter it, lose records, or add spurious records without detection.

Genomics on patients

If genomics on pharmaceuticals offers promise, genomics on patients can offer still more. The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, known as GA4GH, is looking into a blockchain on genomics data for variants of cancer. This approach increases the availability of the data, especially in places that would find it difficult to pay for such information.

At the same time, the people involved recognize, publishing genetic information on individuals raises privacy concerns. EU privacy requirements are especially strict. If the information can be linked to identifiable people, that is a legal concern.

Private blockchains

A private blockchain might be a workable compromise. Private blockchains provide only a weak form of a public blockchains guarantees, since copies are limited to what the managing authority allows and aren’t publicly verifiable. Still, they give a better guarantee of provenance and authenticity than a conventional database. All records are cryptographically signed, so a central authority can’t easily forge or alter the records any participant creates.

Christian Saucier, CTO at Ubitquity, sees private blockchains not only as a way to record sensitive information but as an internal tool for large organizations. Within the organization, they can serve to exchange and validate data. The “smart contract” aspect of blockchains can coordinate actions among different parts of a large corporation.

Provenance and authenticity are a part of any blockchain use, but usually they aren’t the primary goal. Applications need them for financial transactions, consolidated information from multiple sources, and contracts. Sometimes the only thing needed is to show when a record was entered and make sure it’s authentic. Genomics is a striking example, though certainly not the only one.