TAU research makes open access to DNA studies possible again

New tool will protect genetic privacy whle enabling researchers to conduct pioneering medical research.

DNA generic 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
DNA generic 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After it was proven by Weizmann Institute and Israel Police scientists that criminals could fake DNA from blood and saliva samples to create phoney genetic identities and incriminate or exonerate suspects, Tel Aviv University researchers have found a solution to guarantee privacy and scientific freedom in genetic research. The possibility that DNA could be fabricated was shown just last week by Israeli researchers, whose findings were published in the journal FSI Genetics and reported in The Jerusalem Post. But law enforcement officials have been worried about this possibility for years, and as a result, health institutes around the world have removed all genetic data from public access. "Unfortunately, that knee-jerk response stymied potential breakthrough genetic research," says Dr. Eran Halperin of TAU's Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences and department of molecular microbiology and biotechnology. Halperin and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley have developed a tool to put this valuable DNA information safely back in circulation. They devised a mathematical formula that can be used to protect genetic privacy while giving researchers much of the raw data they need to do pioneering medical research. Just published in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics, the tool could keep millions of research dollars' worth of DNA information available to scientists. "We've developed a mathematical formula and a software solution that ensures that malicious eyes will have a very low chance to identify individuals in any study," says Halperin, who is also affiliated with the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley. The mathematical formula can determine which SNPs - single-nucleotide polymorphisms or or small pieces of DNA that differ from one person to another - are accessible to the public without revealing information about which individuals participated in any study. Using computer software that implements the formula, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and similar institutes around the world can distribute important research data, but keep individual identities private. "We've been able to determine how much of the DNA information one can reveal without compromising a person's identity," says Halperin. "This means the substantial effort invested in collecting this data will not have been in vain." Genome association studies can find links in the human genetic code for conditions like autism and predispositions for cancer. Armed with this information, individuals can avoid environmental influences that might bring on disease, and scientists can develop new gene-based diagnosis and treatment tools. Examining SNP positions in our genetic code, Halperin and his team demonstrated the statistical improbabilities of identifying individuals even when their complete genetic sequence is known. "We showed that even when SNPs across the entire genome are collected from several thousand people, using our solution the ability to detect the presence of any given individual is extremely limited," he says. With hopes that his research will reverse the NIH policy, Halperin says he will provide its scientists with access to the software so that researchers can use it to decide which genetic information can be safely loaded into a public database. He also hopes it will quell raging debates about DNA usage and privacy issues.