Strand your ground

Here’s how Apple, Google, and Microsoft are trying to get inside your genes

Not satisfied by having our emails, chats, status updates, search histories, clicking behaviors, and shopping preferences, some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech titans are in an arms race to get access to your most personal information: your DNA.

Last week, for instance, the MIT Technology Review reported that Apple was looking to integrate genetic data into studies that run atop its new open-source research platform, ResearchKit. That should come as no surprise. There’s a national focus on personalized medicine, and since DNA information is becoming cheaper to get and store, the healthcare industry is hoping that personalized medicine will be part of the solution to rising costs.

Here’s a look at how three tech companies are preparing to dominate your DNA:

Apple

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Apple’s ResearchKit platform may soon start integrating genetic information into its medical research efforts. The company has gone on the record saying that it’ll never see your health data. Instead, the data would most likely reside with the individual researchers whose studies were collecting DNA information. Alternately, it could be stored on servers maintained by the open-data nonprofit Sage Bionetworks, which worked with Apple to develop ResearchKit.

But the data that consumers willingly upload to HealthKit will be accessible to IBM’s Watson AI, according to InformationWeek:

As IBM receives Apple’s data, it will de-identify and store it in a secure and scalable cloud system. Researchers, doctors, and other health professionals will be able to view and share the data, as well as access data-mining and predictive analytics capabilities.

Applying artificial intelligence algorithms to health data, experts say, is where healthcare is heading. But because different types of data are often collected in disparate ways, drawing insights from it all is difficult. Apple, with the help of IBM, seems to be tackling that problem. And if they succeed, your iPhone and Apple Watch could become cutting-edge medical devices.

Google

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Google has been investing in DNA-related companies, like 23andMe and DNAnexus, for years. More recently, the search giant offered cheap storage space to hospitals for their DNA data, through a new product called Google Genetics. For just $25 a year, a hospital could store a single copy of a person’s genome, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Doing analysis on that data will cost more, but that’s ultimately where the real value is — and where companies like Google could offer services that even some labs at at top-notch universities can’t afford. For years, the search giant has been recruiting experts in artificial intelligence to make sense of the world’s data. Deep learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence that’s especially good at pattern recognition, and it could help Google make inroads into serious life sciences research. In March, the company announced in a blog post that it would use its deep learning know-how for drug discovery. .

“Rather than just skimming the genome using superficial statistics,” Brendan Frey, an AI researcher at the University of Toronto who recently published a paper in the journal Science on using deep learning for genetic analysis, told me a few weeks ago, “the future lies in deep statistical analysis, also called deep learning, which will be used to find more profound patterns that relate elements in the genome to cellular activities and disease.”

Google’s medical efforts don’t end at DNA deep learning, though. The company has been on the hunt for synthetic chemists, and its research lab, Google X, is working on contact lenses that track glucose levels, in collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Novartis, and wristbands that can detect cancer cells.

Microsoft

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Microsoft has been in the business of analyzing genetic information for some time, with products like HealthVault, an attempt at creating a health-data platform for consumers and doctors. The Cambridge branch of its research lab has an entire group dedicated to bioinformatics. Through collaborations with research organizations like MIT and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, it’s developed several algorithms to try to tease out how environmental factors, like smoking or sunbathing, affect genetic predisposition to disease.

Microsoft is also leading the way on securing the DNA data it gathers. At the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference, Kristin Lauter, who heads up Microsoft’s cryptography research, discussed an encryption method she was developing, dubbed homomorphic encryption, that allows for scientists to encrypt genetic data, while letting researchers do experiments on it. She explained the technology to the Council for Responsible Genetics:

The primary new functionality enabled with homomorphic encryption is the ability to compute on encrypted data. This is very important for things like outsourcing storage and computation of data. The idea is that when using homomorphic encryption, the data owner – let’s say it’s a consumer or an enterprise – could encrypt the data locally and keep the key. Then they can upload that data to the cloud, and if they used homomorphic encryption, that data can still be operated on by the cloud and the encrypted results are available from the cloud to the data owner or anyone the data owner trusts to share the encryption key with. So it really allows a whole new functionality on encrypted data.

As she alludes to, this kind of technology could be useful for things like cloud-based medical records, another product Microsoft has worked on in the past.

Who will win?

None of this is purely charitable, of course. The tech company that wins the DNA research war will also make a fortune from selling its stores of data to pharmaceutical companies, research labs, and other buyers. The potential market for sequencing-driven treatments in oncology alone could be greater than $2 billion by 2018, according to a recent report by the consultancy McKinsey & Company. And the personalized-medicine market as a whole is estimated to be worth upwards of $230 billion, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

So while you’re having your DNA sequenced and stored by a tech company, just remember: you may be getting some valuable insights about your health profile, but the company is making bank off your biology.