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Q&A: Blockchain-based platform for largest genomic data hub (Includes interview)

After raising $33 million in just 15 seconds, Shivom has entered into partnership with SingularityNet, in order to combine blockchain, AI and genomic research in order to achieve advanced, personalized medical analytics. Shivom’s platform will provide a secure solution for patients and genome data donors, while creating an open-web marketplace for service providers.

Service providers will have the opportunity to add their services alongside genomic data analytics and personalized medicine to the platform. With the platform, SingularityNet’s bio-AI team is running a number of research projects regarding the genomics of longevity in an effort to support medical research aimed at maximizing the healthy human lifespan.

To discover more about the project, Digital Journal spoke with Dr. Axel Schumacher, co-founder & CEO of Shivom.

DJ: Why did you decide to set up Shivom?

Axel Schumacher: ​While working in the bioinformatics field, helping to build genomics software platforms for the pharmaceutical industry, I noticed that some of the problems the pharma companies had in building their solutions could be addressed with blockchain technology. Typical problems found in healthcare are inaccessible data silos, data breaches, healthcare data that is not actionable or difficult to interpret, unclear data ownership, and data portability.

For example, healthcare data, when siloed and stored in a variety of formats and disparate databases, is not readily available for society’s maximum utility, benefit and medical needs. Compartmentalized information, especially for genomics data, significantly limits healthcare providers from being able to conduct effective research and drug development.

So I started to investigate potential use-cases for blockchain in the healthcare field in more detail, which eventually led to the publication of the book, Blockchain & Healthcare Strategy Guide 2017: Reinventing healthcare: Towards a global, blockchain-based precision medicine ecosystem. In the following months, the feedback from all over the world was so fantastic that the Shivom team started to work on a comprehensive business model leveraging blockchain in precision medicine.

DJ: What are the objectives behind the genomic data hub?

Schumacher:One of the most important aspects of the data hub is that people own their data and that the user’s are the ones deciding what happens with their information. Usually with genetics, the individual whose data it is doesn’t retain any form of ownership or control over how that data is used. What Shivom aims to do is to utilize the capabilities of blockchain technology that will enable the individual to maintain ownership of their data.

Blockchain also allows the individual to grant controlled access to that data to those who they believe require it, for example their physician, an institution whose research they would like to support, or a pharma company that’s developing a treatment for a condition they may have. In doing so, we hope that the company can become a place for secure data storage and exchange, and with more users on the platform we can develop a data marketplace, where many different health care services can interconnect and interact to use that data through permissions, and thus allow that data to be more valuable, open, and yet more secure.

DJ: Where is the genetic material sourced from?

Schumacher: We will collect genomic data from a variety of sources. First of all, we will allow participants to submit data from other genetic service platforms and laboratories, for example, information they may have obtained from other sequencing companies. People should be allowed to transfer their data to whatever service provider they chose. There are already millions of people who have access to their sequences, and they all can easily use their data on our platform.

Currently, the most available data is made up of SNP and exome data; however as the prices for whole genome sequencing are dropping, we will start to generate more whole genome data. We are also developing our own sequence kits which users will be able to order and submit samples for sequencing to generate genomic data. Additionally, we are working with partner services and healthcare organizations to help subsidize sequencing studies so that the maximum amount of whole genome sequence information can be generated for our platform and combined to deliver the most valuable insights for our users.

In addition, we will work directly with patients, genome initiatives, patient support groups, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies, medical device manufacturers, as well as governments to collect data. We have already a number of partnerships in place and others that we’re working to finalize in order to get our sequencing pilots going.

DJ: Can you provide an example?

Schumacher:For example, we signed a collaborative agreement with the Government of the Indian state Andhra Pradesh to begin some pilot work there. We are also looking at some targeted disease areas where we can get sequencing information that can help move medicine forward in those specific disciplines in various facilities around the globe.

In addition to the genome data, we are looking to integrate parallel technologies, for example, information gathered from electronic health records, various devices such as wearables technology via IoT, and eventually other omics data (particularly metabolomic and microbiome data) to complement the genomic information. Through this, we are hoping to combine all possible data sources to generate the most valuable insights for our users and patients.

DJ: How does blockchain affect the hub?

Schumacher:Blockchain technology is a central part of our precision medicine ecosystem because it combines several advantages at the same time and hence, makes an excellent technology to build a platform for trust. Blockchain has many key features that make it ideal for the storage and sharing of genomic data components. Primarily blockchain offers an additional level of security and trust, as data cannot be revised or tampered with which is particularly crucial for the highly regulated medical field. Also, blockchain can help enable layers of privacy, ensuring that identities are kept private, and users information isn’t easily accessible, which makes people more eager to share their valuable data. Additionally, it allows the user to retain data ownership, and control, such that 1) only the necessary information about the user is disclosed 2) disclosure is done under the user’s control.

Blockchain can also help connect stakeholders, eliminating some unwanted middlemen that increase costs in healthcare systems. The technology also helps to operate across borders so that users can operate everywhere, reaching underserved markets such as transitional countries like India, Brazil, Turkey, or the Middle East. All of this can be accomplished with decentralization of information (data is not stored in one centralized database), so blockchain offers no single hacker access point. With the help of smart contracts, blockchain allows for real-time transactions to occur automatically via pre-defined agreements which makes transactions in the Shivom ecosystem fast, cheap, and error-free.

DJ: What is SingularityNet bringing to the project?

Schumacher:The SingularityNET team is composed of pioneers of innovations in AI and deep learning. They are known for being one of the contributors to the development of the world’s first Humanoid ‘Sophia.’ SingularityNET’s decentralized AI network provides an open market for anyone to develop, share and monetize AI services and algorithms. AI approaches are well suited to model the complex dependencies in the regulatory landscape of our genome and can help predict an individual’s probability of developing certain diseases. As such, we are confident that AI will play a central role in our platform for achieving greater depth in the interpretation of genetic information such as how an individual’s genes may impact their lifestyle decisions or help their healthcare providers design potential therapies.

Because the SingularityNET AI team is involved with a number of research projects — including those that look at the genomics of longevity  — connecting our data sources and platform capabilities will bring many synergies. Once the integration is complete, AI agents on SingularityNET that require genomic or other biological data to complete tasks will be able to request datasets from Shivom. In return, if a Shivom customer asks that AI analytics are to be performed on the medical data they have uploaded, the Shivom network will be able to request the technology from SingularityNET. We expect to accelerate these services through our combined networks, providing customers, researchers, and medical professionals with a clear and enhanced understanding of personalized health analytics.

DJ: How will the project advance personalized medicine?

Schumacher:There are several ways in which our platform enables new forms of personalized medicine. First of all, people will be able to manage their health with the platform, using the genomic data as a starting point. In a few years, it will be standard procedure to have genome information available to tailor therapies for individuals or to improve lifestyle/nutritional parameters for a healthier and longer life. By integrating various ‘omics’ data with the genomic data stored in Shivom’s blockchain-based ecosystem and by applying latest technologies to include artificial intelligence, Shivom through its healthcare services platform intends to provide deep scientific insights, boost therapeutic development, advance molecular diagnostics, biomarker discovery and disease risks assessment.

Ultimately, it will serve to improve people’s quality of life by working to prevent, alleviate and treat diseases worldwide. There are challenges in pharma right now related to the development of new medicines. To develop a new drug can cost billions of dollars. These costs can be drastically reduced by using biomarkers, such as genetic markers, which improve the drug development success rates substantially.

By helping to secure the access for users genomic information, we are in turn helping move sequencing efforts forward, and thus, helping genomic data become available globally so that pharma and other organizations (such as public health initiatives) can access on a permissioned basis to drive their R&D efforts. Furthermore, by conducting sequencing efforts in populations and geographies that have typically been underserved by these efforts (we have projects planned in India and Africa), we will help uncover unique genetic patterns that are present across a spectrum of geographies. This unique and novel DNA information that hasn’t been tapped into before at this scale can substantially help improve research and precision medicine.
DJ: Which companies and organizations will use the service?

Schumacher:Typical customers will be those organizations that can generate the most use of large aggregate sets of healthcare data to advance their R&D programs and where significant cost savings can be incurred by utilizing the vast amounts of data stored in these data sets. Such clients may be pharma companies, academic centers or research organizations that are conducting population-based studies. Insurance companies may use such data to identify disease hotspots or environmental factors that contribute to diseases.

Medical doctors can use the database to find better treatments for their patients. Patient support groups may be able to sponsor new research projects, tailored to their community. In the long-run, new customers are likely to shift to the MedTech and IoT verticals, as well as to healthcare providers that will use the Shivom platform for improving the health of their clients.

In a follow-up interview, Dr. Axel Schumacher discusses the broad benefits of blockchain for science. See: “Advantages of blockchain for science and technology: Q&A.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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