A San Diego startup says it has adapted the blockchain technology that underpins digital currencies like Bitcoin for use as a distributed database for genomic information.
Luna DNA’s efforts mark one of the early attempts to apply blockchain technology in healthcare, as advocates of the much-hyped technology try to make use of it in sectors other than cryptocurrencies.
Co-founder and CEO Bob Kain told Xconomy in a recent interview that Luna DNA uses blockchain technology so that individuals who get their genome sequenced can take ownership of their personal genomic data as a “digital asset.” Kain said part of the appeal of using blockchain technology to store sensitive health information is that such systems operate as “a decentralized and immutable ledger,” meaning it would be very difficult for the data to be altered or destroyed.
Perhaps more importantly, Kain said Luna DNA wants to encourage users to share their genomic information with scientists by offering them “Luna Coins,” the company’s own version of digital currency. The company describes Luna Coins as a “utility coin,” meaning that it’s designed for a specific purpose and not intended as an investment or security. (Luna DNA could face regulatory hurdles in this regard, as digital currency regulations are murky and evolving.)
“We are going through the process now of defining the economics around the coin,” Kain said. If all goes as planned, Luna Coin payments would go into a user’s “digital wallet,” Kain said. Users would be able to exchange their Luna Coins for fiat currency or trade them for other items of value offered through Luna DNA, he said.
The underlying idea is to incentivize users to make their personal genomic data available for biomedical and health-related research for the greater good of medical discovery. “Discovery [in genomics] cannot happen at the individual level,” Kain said, explaining that teasing statistically significant discoveries from genomic data requires hundreds of thousands, even millions of participants. “We cannot solve these problems in genomics and health unless we come together as a community,” he said.
Luna DNA does not provide genome sequencing services. Rather, users would contribute their DNA sequencing from providers such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com. Luna DNA would not charge users for joining its blockchain community, but would generate revenue for both contributors and its own operations from the fees paid by pharmaceutical companies to access the database.
Rewarding the Luna DNA users who agree to share their anonymized genomic data with scientists “is why we exist,” Kain said. The company says Luna coin “will have real monetary value, preserve customer privacy, and enable massive reach at a low cost.”
Luna DNA’s founders set up the business as a public benefit corporation, which “allows [us] to make decisions that don’t always maximize shareholder value,” Kain said. The designation, authorized by 33 states and the District of Columbia, enables a for-profit corporation to consider the public benefit of its actions on the environment, workers, and society. Examples of public benefit companies include eco-minded companies like Patagonia and Method, healthy food companies like Plum Organics, and fair-trade companies like Alter Eco.
Luna DNA users’ data would be linked to their identities through an encrypted key. Kain said each user would control their own genomic data, with the ability to give different healthcare providers access to the information, for example.
Users “can be confident that their ownership of this digital asset is real and protected,” Kain said. He acknowledged, though, that even encrypted blockchain networks are not impervious to cyber attacks. “In today’s world, it’s a constant fight to keep data protected,” Kain said.
It’s still early for Luna DNA, and the startup will likely have its work cut out accumulating users and navigating the challenges that come with running a business that touches both a well-established, heavily regulated industry (healthcare) as well as the wild and wooly world of blockchain technology. Still, some investors see promise.
Last month, Luna DNA said it has raised $2 million in a seed funding round that included individual investors and former executives from Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the San Diego-based maker of DNA-sequencing equipment and related technologies.
Several Illumina veterans are also filling key jobs and advisory roles at Luna DNA, which currently has seven employees. Kain was previously Illumina’s chief engineering officer, and former Illumina chief information officer Scott Kahn has the same title at Luna DNA. Last week, the startup named former Illumina vice president Dawn Barry as president. At Illumina, Barry oversaw development of the company’s marketing strategies to accelerate the application of genomics in medicine and personal healthcare. At Luna DNA, she will be responsible for operations and directing the company’s overall strategy and growth.
Other Luna DNA founders include David Lewis, a former Citigroup executive; Dan Lin, chief technology officer of Redemption Games; and Michael Witz, Redemption Games CEO.