Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?
Science has come a long way since Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 -- only eight months after her diagnosis. Since then, research involving her cancer cells has advanced scientific understanding of the human papilloma virus, polio vaccines, medications for HIV/AIDS and in vitro fertilization.
Today, the World Health Organization reports that those cells are essential in mounting a COVID-19 response. But they were commercialized without the awareness or permission of Lacks or her family, who have filed a lawsuit against a biotech company for profiting from these “HeLa” cells.
While obtaining an individual's informed consent has become standard procedure before the use of tissues in medical research, many patients still don’t know what happens to their samples. Now, a new phone-based app is aiming to change that.
Tissue donors can track what scientists do with their samples while safeguarding privacy, through a pilot program initiated in October by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Precision Medicine. The program uses blockchain technology to offer patients this opportunity through the University of Pittsburgh's Breast Disease Research Repository, while assuring that their identities remain anonymous to investigators.
A blockchain is a digital, tamper-proof ledger of transactions duplicated and distributed across a computer system network. Whenever a transaction occurs with a patient’s sample, multiple stakeholders can track it while the owner’s identity remains encrypted. Special certificates called “nonfungible tokens,” or NFTs, represent patients’ unique samples on a trusted and widely used blockchain that reinforces transparency.
Blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors.
“Healthcare is very data rich, but control of that data often does not lie with the patient,” said Julius Bogdan, vice president of analytics for North America at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a Chicago-based global technology nonprofit. “NFTs allow for the encapsulation of a patient’s data in a digital asset controlled by the patient.” He added that this technology enables a more secure and informed method of participating in clinical and research trials.
Without this technology, de-identification of patients’ samples during biomedical research had the unintended consequence of preventing them from discovering what researchers find -- even if that data could benefit their health. A solution was urgently needed, said Marielle Gross, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“A researcher can learn something from your bio samples or medical records that could be life-saving information for you, and they have no way to let you or your doctor know,” said Gross, who is also an affiliate assistant professor at the Berman Institute. “There’s no good reason for that to stay the way that it is.”
For instance, blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors. Gross estimated that less than half of breast cancer patients are tested for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 — tumor suppressor genes that are important in combating cancer. With normal function, these genes help prevent breast, ovarian and other cells from proliferating in an uncontrolled manner. If researchers find mutations, it’s relevant for a patient’s and family’s follow-up care — and that’s a prime example of how this newly designed app could play a life-saving role, she said.
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app -- called de-bi, which is short for decentralized biobank -- before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer in November, after it was diagnosed on a routine mammogram. She often takes part in medical research and looks forward to tracking her tissues.
“Anytime there’s a scientific experiment or study, I’m quick to participate -- to advance my own wellness as well as knowledge in general,” said Burton, 49, a life insurance service representative who lives in Carnegie, Pa. “It’s my way of contributing.”
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer.
The pilot program raises the issue of what investigators may owe study participants, especially since certain populations, such as Black and indigenous peoples, historically were not treated in an ethical manner for scientific purposes. “It’s a truly laudable effort,” Tamar Schiff, a postdoctoral fellow in medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said of the endeavor. “Research participants are beautifully altruistic.”
Lauren Sankary, a bioethicist and associate director of the neuroethics program at Cleveland Clinic, agrees that the pilot program provides increased transparency for study participants regarding how scientists use their tissues while acknowledging individuals’ contributions to research.
However, she added, “it may require researchers to develop a process for ongoing communication to be responsive to additional input from research participants.”
Peter H. Schwartz, professor of medicine and director of Indiana University’s Center for Bioethics in Indianapolis, said the program is promising, but he wonders what will happen if a patient has concerns about a particular research project involving their tissues.
“I can imagine a situation where a patient objects to their sample being used for some disease they’ve never heard about, or which carries some kind of stigma like a mental illness,” Schwartz said, noting that researchers would have to evaluate how to react. “There’s no simple answer to those questions, but the technology has to be assessed with an eye to the problems it could raise.”
To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification.
As a result, researchers may need to factor in how much information to share with patients and how to explain it, Schiff said. There are also concerns that in tracking their samples, patients could tell others what they learned before researchers are ready to publicly release this information. However, Bogdan, the vice president of the HIMSS nonprofit, believes only a minimal study identifier would be stored in an NFT, not patient data, research results or any type of proprietary trial information.
Some patients may be confused by blockchain and reluctant to embrace it. “The complexity of NFTs may prevent the average citizen from capitalizing on their potential or vendors willing to participate in the blockchain network,” Bogdan said. “Blockchain technology is also quite costly in terms of computational power and energy consumption, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
In addition, this nascent, groundbreaking technology is immature and vulnerable to data security flaws, disputes over intellectual property rights and privacy issues, though it does offer baseline protections to maintain confidentiality. To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification, said Robyn Shapiro, a bioethicist and founding attorney at Health Sciences Law Group near Milwaukee.
The Henrietta Lacks story is a prime example, Shapiro noted. During her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, Lacks’s tissue was de-identified (albeit not entirely, because her cell line, HeLa, bore her initials). After her death, those cells were replicated and distributed for important and lucrative research and product development purposes without her knowledge or consent.
Nonetheless, Shapiro thinks that the initiative by the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins has potential to solve some ethical challenges involved in research use of biospecimens. “Compared to the system that allowed Lacks’s cells to be used without her permission, Shapiro said, “blockchain technology using nonfungible tokens that allow patients to follow their samples may enhance transparency, accountability and respect for persons who contribute their tissue and clinical data for research.”
Read more about laws that have prevented people from the rights to their own cells.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.