Open source DNA

Aug 31, 2009
Open source DNA
This is Dr. Eran Halperin of Tel Aviv University. Credit: AFTAU

A new mathematical tool from Dr. Eran Halperin of TAU's Blavatnik School of Computer Science aims to protect genetic privacy while giving genomic data to researchers.

In the chilling science fiction movie Gattaca, Ethan Hawke stars as a man with "inferior genes" who assumes another's genetic identity to escape a dead-end future. The 1997 film illustrates the very real fear swirling around today's — fear that private genetic information could be used negatively against us.

Last year, after a published paper found serious security holes in the way DNA data is made publicly available, health institutes in the United States and across the world removed all from public access.

"Unfortunately, that knee-jerk response stymied potential breakthrough genetic research," says Dr. Eran Halperin of Tel Aviv University's Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences and Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology. He wants to put this valuable DNA information back in circulation, and has developed the tool to do it — safely.

Working with colleagues at the University of California in Berkeley, Dr. Halperin devised a that can be used to protect genetic privacy while giving researchers much of the raw data they need to do pioneering medical research. Reported in this month's issue of , the tool could keep millions of research dollars-worth of DNA information available to scientists.

New security to restart genetic research

"We've developed a mathematical formula and a software solution that ensures that malicious eyes will have a very low chance to identify individuals in any study," says Dr. Halperin, who is also affiliated with the International Institute in Berkeley.

The mathematical formula that Dr. Halperin's team devised can determine which SNPs ― or small pieces of DNA - that differ from individual to individual in the human population ― are accessible to the public without revealing information about the participation of any individual in the study. Using computer software that implements the formula, the National Institutes of Health and similar institutes around the world can distribute important research data, but keep individual identities private.

"We've been able to determine how much of the DNA information one can reveal without compromising a person's identity," says Dr. Halperin. "This means the substantial effort invested in collecting this data will not have been in vain."

Why is this information so important? Genome association studies can find links in our genetic code for conditions like autism and predispositions for cancer. Armed with this information, individuals can avoid environmental influences that might bring on disease, and scientists can develop new gene-based diagnosis and treatment tools.

A new track for government policymakers

Examining SNP positions in our genetic code, Dr. Halperin and his colleagues demonstrated the statistical improbabilities of identifying individuals even when their complete genetic sequence is known. "We showed that even when SNPs across the entire genome are collected from several thousand people, using our solution the ability to detect the presence of any given individual is extremely limited," he says.

Dr. Halperin hopes his research will reverse the NIH policy, and he will provide access to the software so that researchers can use it to decide which genetic information can be safely loaded into a public database. He also hopes it will quell raging debates about DNA usage and privacy issues.

The Tel Aviv University-Berkeley research was done while Dr. Halperin was working with the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI), a non-profit research institute with close relations to the University of California (UC) and Tel Aviv University. Other coauthors of the study include Sriram Sankararaman, and Prof. Michael Jordan from UC, and Dr. Guillaume Obozinski from Willow, a joint research team between INRIA Rocquencourt, École Normale Supérieure de Paris and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Source: Tel Aviv University (news : web)

Explore further: Bioethicists use theatrical narratives to bridge the gap between society and science

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tiny genetic differences have huge consequences

Jan 19, 2008

A study led by McGill University researchers has demonstrated that small differences between individuals at the DNA level can lead to dramatic differences in the way genes produce proteins. These, in turn, are responsible ...

Meet DNA's personal assistants

May 07, 2009

Just as scientists finished sequencing the human genome, they got a new surprise. Inside the genetic pathway, where DNA produces proteins to sustain life, they found microRNA. These tiny ubiquitous molecules have opened a ...

Researchers close in on new melanoma gene

May 19, 2008

It has long been known that prolonged exposure to the suns harmful UV rays can lead to Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. An unanswered question, however, is why some people are more likely to develop melanoma than ...

Are we selling personalized medicine before its time?

Feb 06, 2009

We may be a long way off from using genetics to reliably gauge our risks for specific diseases, say researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in a study published on Feb. 5 in the online ...

A police woman fights quantum hacking and cracking

Jul 30, 2009

The first desktop computers changed the way we managed data forever. Three decades after their introduction, we rely on them to manage our time, social life and finances -- and to keep this information safe ...

Recommended for you

Classifying sequence variants in human disease

10 hours ago

Sequencing an entire human genome is faster and cheaper than ever before, leading to an explosion of studies comparing the genomes of people with and without a given disease. Often clinicians and researchers studying genetic ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Caliban
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2009
Your "personal genetic information" will be safe. But if they find anything interesting in your genome, and can develop it into a drug or treatment- don't be looking for a check in the mail.

More news stories

Man among first in US to get 'bionic eye' (Update)

A degenerative eye disease slowly robbed Roger Pontz of his vision. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a teenager, Pontz has been almost completely blind for years. Now, thanks to a high-tech procedure ...