Biomedical research carries immense potential for the medical industry when coupled with A.I. and machine learning. However, progress in the field is slow because researchers lack the necessary amount of individual human genomes. Thus, companies turn to blockchain technology for answers, which offers the means to address underlying concerns.
Token Economics to Bolster Genomics
Cross-comparison of human D.N.A. samples can result with groundbreaking discoveries in the future. As of today, serving the greater good comes at a price that revolves around 100$. Such kits reached the mainstream through 23andMe and Ancestry, which sparked the curiosity of millions. Offering insight into one’s genealogy, genetic tendencies towards ailments and even primate ancestors, the sheer broad interest was great marketing doing science a service.
Obviously, not everyone can afford these sets and there aren’t as many willing to cater the needs of science. “Anything less than 100.000 genomes isn’t going to be useful to anyone” – Says Noah Zimmerman, the director of Mount Sinai’s Center for Biomedical Research. When blockchain enters the picture, those who supply the data can actually get paid for their effort and investment.
Nebula Genomics, a startup that fuses biotech with distributed ledger technology (D.L.T.) has its own test kit which gives a more detailed report. It also gives a subsidy if the user fills out a survey, or “sponsored sequencing”, as Wire reports. Furthermore, users that upload their information on the shared ledger receive reimbursement in tokens, depending on how valuable their genome is to researchers.
Companies in the field raised 660 million dollars, which speaks of the promise blockchain brings to biotech. People started to reap the benefits, with dozens of transactions reported by the first distributed marketplace, Encrypgen’s Gene-Chain. Aside a model for mutual profit of users and companies from genetic data, the D.L.T. companies provide a much needed upgrade in terms of privacy.
Blockchain to Address Privacy Concerns
A study by the American Journal of Human Genetics reveals 51% of participants in a survey “worry about their privacy”, in case of misuse of their personal information. Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry are classic web services where data that identifies all their users along with genome sequences stay stored on the same central server. It comes as no surprise that 23andMe’s CEO Anne Wojcicki stated fears about privacy as one of the reasons for a downtrend in sales.
Biotech companies that use blockchain technology aim to regain the trust of consumers because it allows for separating personal information and the D.N.A. sequences. Moreover, it adds another layer of security through encryption. However, the extra protection requires more computing power for researchers to extract the specific output they need.
It might be the reason why Longenesis, one of Nebula’s competitors partnered up with mining equipment suppliers, BitFury. Distributed ledgers capable of managing gigabytes of genetic material pose another challenge for the two technologies. For Nebula, the support of the cryptocurrency community plays a role in outweighing these disadvantages.
Backstory and the Impact of Competition
DNAtix is the pioneer that came about a year before the companies that presently compete for the largest portion of the market. It transferred the full D.N.A. of Craig Venter, a participant in the Human Genome Project to the blockchain. DNAtix successfully transferred 1.7 gigabytes of data using IBM’s Hyperledger Fabric and made their code open-source.
For healthcare in general, the point of blockchain is interoperability between incompatible systems. This includes the open-source platform built by DNAtix. Currently, the competition between projects and companies seems to contradict the demand for a large amount of users on each platform for it to be worthwhile to researchers. But, such claims disregard the fact that no company does nor could require exclusive rights to anyone’s genomic data.
As each person can upload their data to any biotech platform using blockchain to earn tokens, compensation must be realistic. Encrypgen’s approach allows users to set their own price. Yet, valuating data of users isn’t the only difference in biotech blockchain models.
LunaDNA rewards users in LunaCoins. This uses a hybrid PoW/PoS algorithm on a public blockchain, while Longenesis use hybrid Public/Private technology. Usually, enterprise-grade systems are private as larger companies consider it safer. Nonetheless, LunaDNA and Nebula Genomics are the only biotech companies registered with the SEC, a tell-tale sign of legitimacy.
With regulations tightening on blockchain companies, a field as sensitive as biotech is bound to come under increased scrutiny. Beside the nature of the data, most biotech companies outsource the genome for sequencing. This is a method vital for researchers to make sense of it. The one’s delivering the final product depends on the platform that submits it for review.
If the SEC proves investors expect something in return, the formalities and legal efforts could be crucial. These might be early stages for blockchain and biotech. However, experts are predicting a potential takeover by the time the technology matures. Tapping into a field expected to be worth 727 billion dollars by 2025, companies are better off safe than sorry.