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Could Bitcoin technology help science?

The public ledger system that powers Bitcoin may soon be used to give scientists access to vast quantities of data about genetic research, creating a new way to study diseases accurately and efficiently.

On November 1st, over 70 of the world’s top researchers in genetics will meet at Harvard Medical School for a first-of-its-kind workshop on using cryptography to improve the way genetic research is done.

The conveners of “Genetic Research: Towards Blockchain-based Data Analysis and Visualization” have a simple goal: bring together experts from two fields—genetics and cryptography—to see if they can find a way to work together.

What is Cryptography?

Cryptography is the practice of protecting information by converting it between readable and unreadable forms.

To do this, cryptographers use “keys” to change the text of a message into a hard-to-understand string of numbers and letters. Then, only people with the keys can turn those numbers and letters back into a meaningful message.

Cryptography is most famously used to secure credit card information online, but it has many other uses.

How Cryptography helps science?

“One of the most important cryptographic applications is establishing secure voting systems,” says cryptographer Charles Severance at Michigan State University, who is not involved in organizing the genetics session.

Genetic data makes a good target for cryptography because scientists can study its information density.

“We can store a huge amount of data in very few bits,” says Severance. “It’s got some real advantages for being encrypted.”

Scientists have been using cryptography to protect medical research for years, creating anonymous databases of patient information that pharmaceutical companies and government researchers can access without compromising patients’ identities.

For instance, the US National Institutes of Health maintains a secure database called dbGaP that lets outside researchers access valuable genetic data from studies they have conducted. It keeps personal information private and ensures that we can use it for medical research. 

But this system is limited in scope since researchers who want to access genetic data have to request it from a single, centralized source. Moreover, not all research is conducted in the US either.

In August 2017, Nature Biotechnology published a paper describing how researchers might use blockchain technology to solve these problems.

“Blockchains are very good at privacy and security of data,” says Peter Ney, senior author of the paper and a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “You don’t have to trust anyone in these systems.” The blockchain system that underpins Bitcoin is the most famous example, but others are also there.

Blockchain systems are “immutable”—that is, you can’t change earlier entries—and cryptographically secure. So instead, researchers get a unique key that lets them access their data on the blockchain but doesn’t let anyone else see theirs.

Researchers need a way to connect these blockchain systems to their data. “The question is, how do I authenticate myself and get access to my part of the blockchain?” says Ney. A system that helps scientists do this already exists in the form of Biocryptology, a program Ney wrote about in his paper for Nature Biotechnology.

Biocryptology uses blockchain and cryptographic keys to store and protect the data researchers collect and information about who collected it and when.

It also implements an algorithm called secure computational sharing, or SCS. SCS lets scientists transfer large amounts of genetic data over the internet without sending it in the clear (so anyone listening in on the data transfer could get access to it). SCS lets researchers process their data locally before sending it to another research group while protecting that data with cryptography.

“What secure computational sharing does is take your encrypted data and compute things on it,” says Ney. This means scientists can avoid transferring the data in the clear and then decrypt it later on their end.


Researchers turn towards blockchain technology to make medical research more efficient and prevent security breaches. Although there is a lot of potential in this innovation, it has yet to be implemented before mass implementation. You can even earn at Bitcoin. 

Furthermore, the US government does not have a comprehensive plan for adopting blockchain technology which may hinder its healthcare industry. Nonetheless, blockchain technology is a promising innovation with many positive implications for the future of healthcare.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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