In a privacy breakthrough, researchers from Stanford University have developed a method dubbed “genome cloaking” that keeps a patient’s genetic information protected when doctors analyse complete human genomes.

The method uses cryptography to hide almost 99 per cent 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.

“We now have the tools in hand to make certain that genomic discrimination doesn’t happen,” associate professor of developmental biology, pediatrics and computer science at Stanford University, Gill Bejerano, 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 to the cloud, where researchers use a multi-party computation to analyse the data and reveal only the necessary gene variants relevant to the investigation.

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

The researchers hope the method could help patients overcome access concerns, such as by insurance companies, that could be preventing them from sharing their genomic data.

“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.”

 

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