Wednesday, March 25

"Genome Hacking"

We have officially reached Gattaca status - well, not exactly - but according to an article from, we're not far (if you haven't seen Gattaca, and therefore have no idea what I'm talking about, you need to watch it - not just to understand this reference, but because it is unusually accurate, and at the very least insightful - if not prophetic).

What I mean is this: similar to the film, it is now possible to 'hack' another's genome. This highlights a major issue regarding the blossoming field of personal genomics: the right to privacy (other pertinent issues are also discussed in the article - including the accuracy and reliability of info provided by different companies). Check it out:

INTIMATE secrets hidden in your DNA could be stolen without you even realising. By taking a glass from which you have drunk, a "genome hacker" could obtain a comprehensive scan of your genome, revealing DNA variants that help determine your susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, from a common form of blindness to Alzheimer's disease.

That's the disturbing finding of a New Scientist investigation, in which one of us - Michael Reilly - "hacked" the genome of the other - Peter Aldhous - armed with only a credit card, a private email account and a home address.

You might have thought that genome hacking requires specialist skills, and personal access to sophisticated equipment. But in recent years, some companies have started to offer personal genome scans to the public over the internet. Other firms routinely analyse genomes on behalf of scientists involved in human genetics research. In theory, both types of service are vulnerable to abuse by a genome hacker determined to submit someone else's DNA for covert analysis.

Until our investigation, it was not clear whether this would be possible in practice. Could a hacker with no access to a genetics lab take an item carrying another person's DNA and obtain a sample that companies would accept for scanning? Would the sample be of high enough quality to yield accurate results? And would genome analysis companies have procedures in place to identify and refuse suspicious orders?

We decided to find out. Rather like computer security researchers who expose vulnerabilities in software code so that they can be "patched" to guard against malicious hackers, our goal was to uncover vulnerabilities in the way companies offering genome scans operate, so that they can be fixed.

Our investigation uncovered some loopholes that might be closed to help thwart genome thieves. The findings also strengthen the case for additional laws to protect the information contained in the DNA that we all shed continually and leave lying around.

"Just as we have a right to expect that relatives, neighbours, or even strangers can't poke through our medical records without our permission, we should have a right to expect that people can't snoop through our genes," says Kathy Hudson, who heads the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC. Read more...

Beyond piracy, there is, perhaps, a more pertinent question that will soon require an answer: who is legally entitled to your genetic information - your spouse? your kids? siblings?

When I first contemplated the question, my initial impulse was that no one should be legally entitled to my genome. However, upon further contemplation, my answer changed. Why? Well, considering that you share half of your genes with your children, siblings, and parents - is it not their right to know if you discover that you are at high risk for a certain disease (implying that they too may have a similar risk)? My suggestion would be some kind of middle ground, where relatives would have access only to information about genes that could have potential implications for them as well.

It is an intriguing question to which there is not necessarily a "right" answer. None the less, it is a question that will need to be answered (and probably sooner than you think).

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