Genome cloaking can protect patient privacy, Stanford researchers say

By using cryptography to hide almost 99 percent of genetic information, researchers can ensure only patients have access to their complete genomic sequence.
By Jessica Davis
01:56 PM
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cryptography to protect genomic sequencing

Researchers from Stanford University have a developed a method dubbed “genome cloaking,” which keeps a patient’s private genetic information protected when doctors analyze complete human genomes.

The method uses cryptography to hide almost 99 percent of genetic information, while allowing researchers to access specific gene mutations, according to the study. Now researchers can scour complete genomes -- without seeing any genetic information irrelevant to the inquiry.

The cloaking technique could alleviate privacy and potential discrimination concerns when it comes to genomic sequencing.

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“We now have the tools in hand to make certain that genomic discrimination doesn’t happen,” Gill Bejerano associate professor of developmental biology, of pediatrics and of computer science at Stanford said in a statement.

“There are ways to simultaneously share and protect this information,” he added. “Now we can perform powerful genetic analyses while also completely protecting our participants’ privacy.”

The genome cloaking approach lets patients encrypt their genetic data using an algorithm on their computer or smart device. The researchers said the information is uploaded into the cloud, where researchers use a multi-party computation to analyze the data and reveal only the necessary gene variants relevant to the investigation.

This means that no one has access to the complete set of genetic data other than the patient, Bejerano explained.

The researchers hope that this method -- if routinely implemented -- could help patients overcome access concerns that may be preventing them from sharing their genomic data. Many patients are concerned about how their genomic sequence could be used against them -- like in obtaining insurance.

“Often people who have diseases, or those who know that a particular genetic disease runs in their family, are the most reluctant to share their genomic information because they know it could potentially be used against them in some way,” Bejerano said.

“They are missing out on helping themselves and others by allowing researchers and clinicians to learn from their DNA sequences.”

Twitter: @JessieFDavis
Email the writer: jessica.davis@himssmedia.com