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This Company Wants to Sequence Your Genome, Put It On a Blockchain—And Pay You For It

Coming to a blockchain near you: DNA. Science & Society Picture Library SSPL via Getty Images

Blockchain and cryptocurrency mania has engulfed the Internet in the past year. But could the digital ledger tech (and its offshoot applications) also help spur drug development, ensure genetic privacy, and make consumers some crypto-money on the side—all in one fell swoop?

That’s the ambitious quest driving Nebula Genomics, a company founded and advised by a crew of geneticists and Harvard grads. Genomics expert George Church and his colleagues released a new white paper this week detailing the logic behind the enterprise, which seeks to sequence genomes for less than $1,000, place them onto a secure blockchain, and then give you the power to do what you want to with your protected genomic data while raking in cryptocurrency, as MIT Technology Review’s Emily Mullin reports.

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The company’s overarching purpose would be to displace common consumer genetic sequencing firms like 23andMe and Helix. Nebula would ostensibly set itself apart from those outfits by giving you control over who can access your genomic data (while also providing a more full-scale genetic analysis) for the purposes of research and drug development. The blockchain element, the logic goes, ensures both consumer control and security while cutting out the in-between players.

“The Nebula model… eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers. Instead, data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers,” wrote Church and his colleagues in the white paper. “This model reduces effective sequencing costs and enhances protection of personal genomic data. It also satisfies the needs of data buyers in regards to data availability, data acquisition logistics, and resources needed for genomic big data.”

The model would combine a number of burgeoning technologies in both fintech and health care. Not only would you be able to get insight into your genetic makeup and, if you want, fuel drug research—you’d actually be paid via cryptocurrency “Nebula tokens” for doing so.

That latter part is what may give some people pause. Nebula still needs to figure out how to hand out its so-called “Nebula tokens” or whether it will have an initial coin offering (ICO). And, understandably, there’s a fair amount of skepticism out there about the early crypto-trend. But it’s hard to deny that Nebula’s mission in the health care space is an intriguing one.

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