Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Data Sharing and Privacy: In the News

Roughly one year after the NIH and The Wellcome Trust restricted access to genome-wide association studies [see: Modifications to Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) Data Access (NIH, August 28, 2008 - PDF)], data sharing is back in the news. In August, researchers in Tel Aviv and Berkeley announced a new method of protecting the privacy of individuals in genetic research studies. In the press release, one of the authors, Eran Halperin, alludes to the PLoS Genetics paper that led to the NIH's data access modifications (Homer N, et al.). As Halperin sees it, the "knee-jerk response stymied potential breakthrough genetic research." Perhaps he hopes that the new privacy approach will re-open the doors of safe data sharing. Halperin's method (published in Nature Genetics) uses a likelihood ratio (LR) test to measure the risk of exposing a single individual within a data set. Ultimately, the LR test limits the number of SNPs shared and thereby decreases the chances of privacy losses. If you would like to give this method a try, the software is available online (with registration) at SECUREGENOME.

In related news, The Toronto International Data Release Workshop (Genome Canada, May 2009) recently recommended the "rapid release of prepublication data" to speed the pace of scientific discover. The recommendation was published in a special, data sharing edition of Nature. The Workshop cites the Human Genome Project as an example of how sharing data leads to public benefits: "This experience ultimately demonstrated that the broad and early availability of sequence data greatly benefited life sciences research by leading to many new insights and discoveries, including new information on 30 disease genes published prior to the draft sequence." In a note addressing the human subjects concerns, the Workshop acknowledges the privacy risks: "Data about human subjects participating in genetic and epidemiological research require particularly careful consideration owing to privacy-protection issues and the potential harms that could arise from misuse. ... [F]or clinical and genomic data that are associated with a unique, but not directly identifiable individual, access may be restricted."

Will these developments (a proposed technical solution to the privacy barrier and a reaffirmation of the social benefits of data sharing) encourage the NIH and The Wellcome Trust to reduce some of the restrictions on data sharing? (I’d say: not yet.) While the safety of data sharing may be increased with technical solutions, it seems unlikely that all privacy risks will be eliminated. After all, if I share something "private" with you (or with anyone else), it's not so "private" any more. At the same time, if data access is restricted (for example, by using smaller, "safer" data sets), the public benefit of sharing resources declines. Clearly, we are looking for a way to eat our cake and have it too; protecting the individual's privacy while sharing for common benefits. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what are the risks that we are willing to impose on individuals for the benefit of the common good? As an individual, exactly how private is your privacy? And at what cost?


Homer N, et al. Resolving individuals contributing trace amounts of DNA to highly complex mixtures using high-density SNP genotyping microarrays. PLoS Genet. 2008 Aug 29;4(8):e1000167. PMID: 18769715

Sankararaman S, Obozinski G, Jordan MI, Halperin E. Genomic privacy and limits of individual detection in a pool. Nat Genet. 2009 Sep;41(9):965-7. Epub 2009 Aug 23. PMID: 19701190.

Toronto International Data Release Workshop Authors, et al. Prepublication data sharing. Nature. 2009 Sep 10;461(7261):168-70. PMID: 19741685.

Other Predictive Health Ethics News

Nikki Tait. Pan-European biobanking moves closer. Financial Times. September 16, 2009.

Michael Rugnetta and Whitney Kramer. Paving the Way for Personalized Medicine. Science Progress. September 14, 2009.

Daniel Vorhaus and Lawrence Moore. What happens when a personal genomics company goes bankrupt? Genetic Future. September 14, 2009.

Caroline Wright. HGC public consultation on DTC genetic testing services. PHG Foundation News. September 8, 2009.

Over Ninety Per Cent Of Pathologists Find Research Rules Too Complex. Medical News Today, September 8, 2009.

Jane E. Brody. Buyer beware of home DNA tests. The New York Times. August 31, 2009.

Brad Therrell, Harry Hannon, Don Bailey, et al. Considerations and Recommendations for a National Policy Regarding the Retention and Use of Dried Blood Spot Specimens after Newborn Screening. Genetic Alliance. August 21, 2009.

Turner Ray. Lack of Physician Education, Genetic Counseling Could Ruin Value Proposition of PGx Testing, Insurer Says. Genomeweb: Pharmacogenomics Reporter. August 12, 2009.

The Genetics and Public Policy Center. Center publishes new survey of state false advertising laws. dnapolicy.org, August 11, 2009.
- J.O.

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