Perhaps you're one of the 12 million people who has spit into a tube in recent years to learn the secrets in your genetic code, like your ancestry, your health risks, or your carrier status for certain diseases. If you haven't participated in direct-to-consumer genetic testing, you may know someone who has.
It's for people who want more control over their genetic data--plus a share of the proceeds when and if that data is used.
Mountains of genomic data have been piling up steeply over the last several years, but according to some experts, not enough research and drug discovery is being done with the data collected, and customers rarely have a say in how their data is used. Now, a slew of ambitious startup companies are bringing together the best of blockchain technology and human genomics to help solve these problems.
But First, Why Is Your Genome So Valuable?
Access to genetic information is an obvious boon to scientific and medical progress. In the right hands, it has the potential to save lives and reduce suffering — by facilitating the development of better, safer, more targeted treatments and by shedding light on the role of genetics in countless diseases and medical conditions.
Research requiring access to direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomic data is already well underway. For example, 23andMe, the popular California-based DTC genetic testing company, has published 107 research articles so far, as of this May, using data from their five million-plus customers around the world. Their website states that, on average, of the 80 percent of their customers who have opted to share their genomic data for research purposes, each "individual contributes to 200 different research studies."
And this July, a new collaboration was announced between 23andMe and GlaxoSmithKline, the London-based pharmaceutical company. GlaxoSmithKline will be using data from 23andMe customers to develop new medical treatments, while 23andMe will receive $300 million from the four-year deal. Both companies are poised to profit significantly from their union.
Should 23andMe's customers share in the gains? Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, believes they should. "Are they going to offer rebates to people who opt in, so their customers aren't paying for the privilege of 23andMe working with a for-profit company in a for-profit research project?" Pitts told NBC. So far, 23andMe has not announced any plans to share profits with their customers.
But outside of such major partnerships, many researchers are frustrated by the missed opportunities to dig deeper into the correlations between genetics and disease. That's because people's de-identified genomic information is "essentially lying fallow," siloed behind significant security blockades in the interest of preserving their anonymity. So how can both researchers and consumers come out ahead?
Putting Consumers Back in Control
For people who want more control over their genetic data -- plus a share of the proceeds when and if that data is used -- a few companies have paired consumer genomics with blockchain technology to form a new field called "blockchain genomics." Blockchain is a data storage technology that relies on a network of computers, or peer-to-peer setup, making it incredibly difficult to hack. "It's a closed loop of transactions that gets protected and encrypted, and it cannot be changed," says Tanya Woods, a blockchain thought leader and founder of Kind Village, a social impact technology platform.
The vision is to incentivize consumers to share their genomic data and empower researchers to make new breakthroughs.
"So if I agree to give you something and you agree to accept it, we make that exchange, and then that basic framework is captured in a block. … Anything that can be exchanged can be ledgered on blockchain. Anything. It could be real estate, it could be the transfer of artwork, it could be the purchase of a song or any digital content, it could be recognition of a certification," and so on.
The blockchain genomics companies' vision is to incentivize consumers to share their genomic data and empower researchers to make new breakthroughs, all while keeping the data secure and the identities of consumers anonymous.
Consumers, or "partners" as these companies call them, will have a direct say regarding which individuals or organizations can "rent" their data, and will be able to negotiate the amount they receive in exchange. But instead of fiat currency (aka "regular money") as payment, partners will either be remunerated in cryptocurrency unique to the specific company or they will be provided with individual shares of ownership in the database for contributing DNA data and other medical information.
Luna DNA, one of the blockchain genomics companies, "will allow any credible researcher or non-profit to access the databases for a nominal fee," says its president and co-founder, Dawn Barry. Luna DNA's infrastructure was designed to embrace certain conceptions of privacy and privacy law "in which individuals are in total control of their data, including the ability to have their data be 'forgotten' at any time," she said. This is nearly impossible to implement in pre-existing systems that were not designed with full control by the individual in mind.
One of the legal instruments to which Barry referred was the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which "states that the data collected on an individual is owned and should be controlled by that individual," she explained. Another is the California Privacy Act that echoes similar principles. "There is a global trend towards more control by the individual that has very deep implications to companies and sites that collect and aggregate data."
David Koepsell, CEO and co-founder of EncrypGen, told Forbes that "Most people are not aware that your DNA contains information about your life expectancy, your proclivity to depression or schizophrenia, your complete ethnic ancestry, your expected intelligence, maybe even your political inclinations" — information that could be misused by insurance companies and employers. And though DTC customers have been assured that their data will stay anonymous, some data can be linked back to consumers' identities. Blockchain may be the answer to these concerns.
Both blockchain technology and the DTC genetic testing arena have a glaring diversity problem.
"The security that's provided by blockchain is tremendous," Woods says. "It's a significant improvement … and as we move toward more digitized economies around the world, these kinds of solutions that are providing security, validity, trust — they're very important."
In the case of blockchain genomics companies like EncrypGen, Luna DNA, Longenesis, and Zenome, each partner who joins would bring a digital copy of their genetic readout from DTC testing companies (like 23andMe or AncestryDNA). The blockchain technology would then be used to record how and for what purposes researchers interact with it. (To learn more about blockchain, check out this helpful visual guide by Reuters.)
Obstacles in the Path to Success
The cryptocurrency approach as a method of payment could be an unattractive lure to consumers if only a limited number of people make transactions in a given currency's network. And the decade-old technology underlying it -- blockchain -- is not yet widely supported, or even well-understood, by the public at large.
"People conflate blockchain with cryptocurrency and bitcoin and all of the concerns and uncertainty thereof," Barry told us. "One can think of cryptocurrency as a single expression of the vast possibilities of the blockchain technology. Blockchain is straightforward in concept and arcane in its implementation."
But blockchain, with its Gini coefficient of 0.98, is one of the most unequal "playing fields" around. The Gini coefficient is a measure of economic inequality, where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality. Around 90 percent of bitcoin users, for example, are male, white or Asian, between the ages of 18 and 34, straight, and from middle and upper class families.
The DTC genetic testing arena, too, has a glaring diversity problem. Most DTC genetic test consumers, just like most genetic study participants, are of European descent. In the case of genetic studies, this disparity is largely explained by the fact that most research is done in Europe and North America. In addition to being over 85 percent white, individuals who purchase DTC genetic testing kits are highly educated (about half have more than a college degree), well off (43 percent have a household income of $100,000 or more per year), and are politically liberal (almost 65 percent). Only 14.5 percent of DTC genetic test consumers are non-white, and a mere 5 percent are Hispanic.
Since risk of genetic diseases often varies greatly between ethnic groups, results from DTC tests can be less accurate and less specific for those of non-European ancestry — simply due to a lack of diverse data. The bigger the genetic database, wrote Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic, the more insights 23andMe and other DTC companies "can glean from DNA. That, in turn, means the more [they] can tell customers about their ancestry and health…" Though efforts at recruiting non-white participants have been ongoing, and some successes have been made at improving ancestry tools for people of color, the benefits of genomic gathering in North America are still largely reaped by Caucasians.
So far, it's not yet clear who or how many people will choose to partake in the offerings of blockchain genomics companies.
So one chief hurdle for the blockchain genomics companies is getting the technology into the hands of those who are under-represented in both blockchain and genetic testing research. Women, in particular, may be difficult to bring on board the blockchain genomics bandwagon — though not from lack of interest. Although women make up a significant portion of DTC genetic testing customers (between 50 and 60 percent), their presence is lacking in blockchain and the biotech industry in general.
At the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami earlier this year, only three women were on stage, compared to 84 men. And the after-party was held in a strip club.
"I was at that conference," Woods told us. "I don't know what happened at the strip club, I didn't observe it. That's not to say it didn't happen … but I enjoyed being at the conference and I enjoyed learning from people who are experimenting in the space and developing in it. Generally, would I have loved to see more women visible? Of course. In tech generally I want to see more women visible, but there's a whole ecosystem shifting that has to happen to make that possible."
Luna's goal is to achieve equal access to a technology (blockchain genomics) that could potentially improve health and quality of life for all involved. But in the merging of two fields that have been unequal since their inception, achieving equal access is one tall order indeed. So far, it's not yet clear who or how many people will choose to participate. LunaDNA's platform has not yet launched; EncrypGen released their beta version just last month.
Sharon Terry, president and CEO of Genetic Alliance — a nonprofit organization that advocates for access to quality genetic services — recently shared a message that reflects the zeitgeist for all those entering the blockchain genomics space: "Be authentic. Tell the truth, even about motives and profits. Be transparent. Engage us. Don't leave us out. Make this real collaboration. Be bold. Take risks. People are dying. It's time to march forward and make a difference."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."