Scientists developing protection mechanisms for genetic data

December 23, 2016
Scientists developing protection mechanisms for genetic data
Professor Stefan Katzenbeisser develops special methods to encrypt genomic data. Credit: Katrin Binner

The more we know about our genome data, the better our doctors will be able to treat us in the future. But how can we make use of this sensitive data, without allowing it to be misused? The IT specialists around Stefan Katzenbeisser and Kay Hamacher from the Technische Universität Darmstadt want to encrypt genome data so skilfully that it is still possible to carry out mathematical analyses.

Dirk von Gehlen is a journalist who works for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, which is published in Southern Germany. He was recently visited by colleagues from the North German Broadcasting Corporation, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR). They brought him a USB stick on which was stored a complete month of his browser history – the websites he had visited, the search keys he had entered in Google and the train journeys he had booked. The NDR reporter had bought the data over the Internet. Gehlen was flabbergasted! He had no idea that a company was using a harmless browser add-on to secretly record the Internet activities of millions of users and offer the data for sale internationally.

Researchers fear that something similar could happen in future with data that provides ever-deeper insights into our biological identity. A few years ago, for example, customers of the American company 23andme were already paying a fee and sending in a saliva sample. The company analysed the inherited genetic variations – the so-called SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms). From this, they could discern whether someone has an increased risk of developing cancer, Huntington's disease or Parkinson's disease.

Admittedly the American authorities banned the transaction, because they feared that customers could misunderstand the findings without medical advice. But the company is still able to keep on collecting genome data, so that now it can ascertain the customers' genetic parentage. The data is digitally stored and could theoretically be sold on. It would be worth its weight in gold to medical insurance and .

Basis for personalised medicine

But despite everything, it is not a good idea to ban the storage and use of this data. Because it could revolutionise medicine. "Genome data is the basis for personalised medicine", says Kay Hamacher, bio-informatics specialist at the TU Darmstadt. "Behind it is the vision that in future, doctors will be able to offer their patients individually tailored forms of treatment on the basis of genetic information." The genome data could, for example, provide information about whether or not someone will tolerate certain medication, or whether a particular treatment would work really well.

Kay Hamacher and Stefan Katzenbeisser from the Cybersecurity (CYSEC) profile area are looking to harness for these purposes, whilst making its misuse as impossible as current crypt-technology allows. The risk is always present, when doctors and clinics release the data for research. Genome research is assigned to powerful computers, so IT service providers often have to be involved, using super-computers to trawl through the data. "So we need a method that, although it encrypts the data, still allows its use in subsequent calculations", says Stefan Katzenbeisser. "It must never be possible for the service provider performing the calculation to see the unencrypted data."

Explore further: Google making inroads with Genomics database

Related Stories

Google making inroads with Genomics database

November 7, 2014
Last March, Google announced that it had developed a database and associated ways for accessing the data it stored, geared towards storing human genome information—named quite naturally, Google Genomics. Since that time, ...

Shadows over data sharing

March 5, 2013
In a paper about to be published in EPJ Data Science, Barbara Jasny, deputy editor for commentary at Science magazine in Washington, DC, USA, looks at the history of the debates surrounding data access during and after the ...

Tapping crowd-sourced data unearths a trove of depression genes

August 1, 2016
Scientists have discovered 15 genome sites - the first ever - linked to depression in people of European ancestry. Many of these regions of depression-linked genetic variation turn out to be involved in regulating gene expression ...

Researchers discover genetic links to rosacea

March 10, 2015
Today marked the publication of the first ever genome-wide association study of rosacea, a common and incurable skin disorder. Led by Dr. Anne Lynn S. Chang of Stanford University's School of Medicine, and co-authored by ...

Potential new asthma genes ID'd in genome-wide study

July 28, 2016
(HealthDay)—Potential new asthma genes have been identified in a genome-wide association study (GWAS) combined with subsequent lung expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) analysis, according to research published online ...

New genetic findings help explain inherited predisposition to myeloma

July 1, 2016
Researchers have identified eight new genetic variations in the human genome that could be linked to an increased risk of developing myeloma. The findings provide additional evidence and build on existing research that suggests ...

Recommended for you

A rogue gene is causing seizures in babies—here's how scientists wants to stop it

July 26, 2017
Two rare diseases caused by a malfunctioning gene that triggers seizures or involuntary movements in children as early as a few days old have left scientists searching for answers and better treatment options.

Scientists provide insight into genetic basis of neuropsychiatric disorders

July 21, 2017
A study by scientists at the Children's Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI) is providing insight into the genetic basis of neuropsychiatric disorders. In this research, the first mouse model of a mutation ...

Scientists identify new way cells turn off genes

July 19, 2017
Cells have more than one trick up their sleeve for controlling certain genes that regulate fetal growth and development.

South Asian genomes could be boon for disease research, scientists say

July 18, 2017
The Indian subcontinent's massive population is nearing 1.5 billion according to recent accounts. But that population is far from monolithic; it's made up of nearly 5,000 well-defined sub-groups, making the region one of ...

Mutant yeast reveals details of the aberrant genomic machinery of children's high-grade gliomas

July 18, 2017
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital biologists have used engineered yeast cells to discover how a mutation that is frequently found in pediatric brain tumor high-grade glioma triggers a cascade of genomic malfunctions.

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.