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Paying for Genetic Data With Cryptocurrency

A startup is betting on the blockchain to get people to sequence and share their genomes

3 min read
Illustration of blocks in the shape of DNA
Illustration: iStockphoto

As the cost of DNA sequencing continues to drop, academics and biotech companies have been waiting for more individuals to sequence and share their full genomes. But so far, that isn’t happening.

Personal genomics companies, such as 23andMe and Ancestry, perform consumer genotyping, a relatively inexpensive process that identifies single DNA letters at regular intervals across the genome. While such genotyping has become popular, academics, medical researchers, and pharmaceutical companies want something different. They seek whole genome sequences—every single one of the roughly 6.4 billion letters in the human genome—to do research, develop drugs, and more. But they’re not getting them: Consumers have been loath to pay upwards of US $1,000 for full genome sequencing and even more wary of sharing that detailed, private data.

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A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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