Blockchain Technology Opens Door to Anonymous DNA Markets


A marketplace powered by blockchain technology has been launched by an enterprising start-up for individuals to sell their own DNA and health data anonymously to medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies – potentially disrupting genetic testing companies’ billion-dollar consumer business.

While major ethical issues have been raised over the past decade about the need for absolute privacy revolving around the sales of genomic data, the start-up, EncrypGen, has moved in the opposite direction, giving customers the opportunity to make money off their own genomic data while keeping it unidentified.

The company uses blockchain technologyOpens a new window to guarantee anonymity. Blockchains, which underpin the digital currency markets, consist of computers linked in peer-to-peer networks to record sales and purchases instantly but do not keep records of past transactions or allow transactions to be printed.

EncrypGen describes itself as a DNA marketplace, offered as a peer-to-peer platform to buy and sell health science products and services in addition to genomic data. It is one of the latest examples of the technology-driven transformation of medical research and diagnosticsOpens a new window .

Additionally, it represents an effort to disrupt the lock on genomic data held by popular DNA testing companies such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe. The testers charge consumers to analyze their DNA data and then resell it to pharmaceutical labs.

The direct-to-consumer genetic testing business will surpass $2.5 billion annually by 2024,  according to a recent research report by Global Market Insights, Inc.

“EncrypGen brings together individual DNA data owners with genomic data buyers in a genomic data marketplace to accelerate scientific discovery and find new treatments and cures for diseases,” the company claimsOpens a new window on its website. “The Gene-Chain Marketplace is an open, free market where individuals sell their de-identified data directly to buyers.”

EncrypGen uses its own proprietary blockchain-based technology to do so, allowing the buyers to buy the data directly from data owners through a transaction that is verified through the blockchain ledgerOpens a new window .

“Of a spate of new companies aiming to use blockchain-based technology to give individuals control over which researchers can use their data, EncrypGen appears to be the first to facilitate sharing of genomic information,” analyst Shawna Williams writesOpens a new window in The Scientist Magazine.

The design opens up the market of customers who can benefit from the data, making it more financially accessible for a broader range of scientific researchers and doctors, as well as deeper-pocketed pharmaceutical companies and labs. The range of data EncrypGen potentially can match these clients with is also broader, including health, ancestry and lifestyle information, as well as DNA data.

Using blockchain is central to EncrypGen’s business plan, and its differentiator from the two other genomic data marketplaces established by competitors Nebula Genomics and LunaDNA.

“Blockchain cooks in the values of privacy, security, and ownership,” EncrypGen CEO David Koepsell told ForbesOpens a new window , discussing his decision to build the genome marketplace around the blockchain technology. “Blockchains can safely hide your genomes from prying eyes and, at the same time, allow scientists to gather anonymized information about large populations—and only then use that data with the donor’s permission.”

It also allows the owner of the DNA material to benefit directly from its use in research, rather than unwittingly used by DNA testing companies.

Bitcoin and EncrypGen’s DNA tokens are used for transactions; Ethereum tokens will be accepted soon in the marketplace, the company says.

And while blockchain’s anonymity is helpful for financial transactions, the need for individuals to keep their genetic information private is vital to prevent future abuse of what the DNA can reveal about an individual.

“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,” Koepsell says. “Your genomic data can be misused by potential employers, unscrupulous corporations, and governments in any number of unexpected ways. It must therefore be kept private.”

At the same time, genetic information is the key for finding solutions to the more than 6,000 known genetic diseases.

The application of blockchain technology to brokering consumer genomic data is an investment area with significant potential. “The most established bio-brokers,” Williams writes, “are now beginning to launch limited versions of their platforms, with the goal of building up to trading in genomic sequences and detailed medical and behavioral information—as dictated by their users.”