How Can We Use the Blockchain to Secure Precision Medicine?

By Emily Newton

People within and outside of the health care sector are excited about the potential of precision medicine. They believe that thanks to resources like a patient’s DNA data, it’ll eventually be possible to engineer treatments specifically for them. Additionally, genomic information could help pharmaceutical companies create drugs that cause fewer side effects and better outcomes in the population. Precision medicine could also lead to better health screenings, enabling providers to spot disease risks and mitigate them earlier. 

However, as people recognize the potential, they also see why securing precision medicine is necessary. That’s particularly due to the highly personal nature of someone’s genetic data. Blockchain technology has emerged as an exciting possibility that could unlock precision medicine opportunities while keeping information safe. Here’s an idea of what you can expect on the horizon.

Improving Clinical Trial Designs While Earning Patients’ Trust

Most clinical trials have occasional surprises. Researchers may discover that a certain drug does not have the desired outcome in people above a specific age, or it treats a medical issue other than what developers intended it to target. However, what makes people react differently to drugs is not always so evident, such as if the variations occur because of genetic differences. 

Focusing on precision medicine while recruiting for and running clinical trials could allow finding the patients that are truly the best suited to receive treatment. Then, the respective pharmaceutical company executives are most likely to get the kinds of value-driven outcomes they want to boost their profits and make all their research and development efforts pay off. 

However, patients must trust that clinical trial representatives will treat their information responsibly. Showing data transparency is an essential part of earning patient trust and helping them feel confident throughout a trial. 

A partnership between Boehringer Ingelheim and IBM involves exploring the real-world feasibility of using the blockchain in a clinical trial. People working on the project believe the decentralized ledger technology will reduce known challenges, such as data reproducibility and sharing information among authorized parties. 

However, any blockchain solutions used for this purpose must account for the reality that numerous parties must access the content, and they won’t all have the same privileges. It’ll be interesting to see the outcomes of these early experiments. It’s no surprise that pairing the blockchain with clinical trials could push precision medicine forward. 

Enabling the Safe Storage and Exchange of Genomic Data

Significant strides in precision medicine are more likely to happen when researchers work with massive longitudinal cohorts rather than patient groups consisting of thousands of individuals. This allows health care professionals to look for trends in genetic details, lab results, and more. 

For example, a single effort included more than 100 cohorts spread across 43 countries, with more than 50 million people participating. Such endeavors could become more challenging to responsibly manage such tremendous amounts of data. However, the blockchain could help secure precision medicine and advance genomics research. 

One possibility is that a decentralized ledger could power a worldwide health data hub that allows people to share, borrow or sell genetic information. For now, most genetic data stays within the control of a few large corporate entities. Those organizations then profit by selling the information to third parties. However, the people who initially donated the material usually don’t receive compensation.

The blockchain could change that by giving data owners more control over who uses their genetic information and for what reasons. Imagine a situation where a person decides to put their details onto a publicly accessible DNA marketplace website and then field the associated interactions with interested parties. 

That’s not an option yet, but it could become one soon. Outside of health care, people are already looking at ways to apply the blockchain to manage user consent about how companies use their data for marketing. Applying the concept to precision medicine is not a far-fetched idea, and it could make it easier for researchers to gather meaningful details before collaborating on projects. 

Which Companies Are Using the Blockchain With Precision Medicine?

Using the blockchain to safely manage the data associated with precision medicine is not merely something that sounds good in theory. Some organizations are already making it happen. Although there are still relatively few of them, the market should grow once these early efforts show positive results. 

Offering NFTs and Unique Genome IDs

A company called Shivom is moving ahead with something that’s perhaps the closest to the DNA marketplace discussed above. It allows people to create non-fungible tokens (NFTs) from their genetic data, then gives the proceeds to medical research. The most likely opportunities in this space relate to celebrities making NFTs this way.

Several years ago, Shivom worked on efforts that more closely align with goals to secure precision medicine. It created something called a Unique Global Genome ID. It links a person’s genetic sequence to DNA data that gets uploaded to the blockchain. 

Natalie Pankova, Shivom’s chief scientific officer, explained, “The goal is that with a unique, yet anonymous, genome ID, researchers can avoid redundant analysis of genomes across multiple genomic databases, thereby avoiding bias and false positives. Researchers then can filter genomes according to origin and previously analyzed IDs. Resequenced genomes can retain the same ID associated with the individual, while the data set gets updated.”

Eventually, that system may create a platform where health care entities can obtain data after getting a user’s consent. That would make it easier for a person to see which parties have their information and why,

Building a Specialized Blockchain Platform 

Progress in precision medicine and the blockchain will inevitably also involve other advanced technologies. For example, researchers have used big data with precision medicine to determine a patient’s most likely prognosis based on their test results and lifestyle.

Macrogen — a South Korean gene sequencing specialist — also harnessed the power of big data to advance precision medicine. The company created a blockchain-based big data platform that allows interested parties to safely exchange information. 

Yang Kap-seok, the company’s CEO, spoke favorably about the tool in the days before its development, saying, “Despite its wide utility, gene data has been difficult to move around due to privacy protection issues and technological barriers. We hope that our upcoming blockchain-based platform will allow health care gene and medical big data to be circulated freely.”

An Exciting Future for Precision Medicine and the Blockchain

It’s still relatively uncommon for people to combine precision medicine and the blockchain. However, this overview shows the abundant potential in such efforts, particularly for keeping patient data secure yet accessible to authorized parties.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. A regular contributor to Brilliance Security Magazine, she has over four years of experience writing articles in the industrial sector.

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