DNA Hacking: Future of Medicine or Dangerous Weapon

Would you let someone hack your DNA, for the purposes of medicine or art? Bio hackers say dangers lurk behind this trend, especially if DNA falls into the wrong hands.

Chicago resident Heather Dewey-Hagborg collects what others leave behind.

“I started wondering how much I could learn about someone from a cigarette or a piece of chewing gum,” said the trans-disciplinary artist.

By extracting DNA from remnants of hair strands, gum and cigarette butts, she can often learn more about strangers then they know about themselves.

“Gender, ancestry, eye color, tendency to be overweight, complexion, nose width,” she said.

Dewey-Hagborg is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is an artist. And she considers herself a bio hacker.

She creates portrait sculptures from analyzing genetic material. (If you want to include some of her masks that she has created from people’s DNA, you can pull some from this website http://deweyhagborg.com/strangervisions/portraits.html)

Dewey-Hagborg is among a growing community of amateur biologists who hack into DNA, the genetic code making each person unique. This may be considered extreme to some, but there are mainstream scientists conducting similar research under the backing of major universities.

“We think we’re going to look back someday and say we can’t believe doctors gave the same medicine to everyone that had the same disease,” said Dr. Peter O’Donnell, part of a team of researchers on “The 1200 Patient Project” at the University of Chicago, which analyzes DNA to personalize medicine and tailor drug therapies.

“The thought of using the patient’s individual DNA to actually determine which medication might be the best for them, which dose might be the best for them, that’s really what we think the time has come to implement and that’s what our project is trying to do,” O’Donnell said.

This could be the future of medicine - analyzing genetic markers to take the guesswork out of whether certain medications will work on certain individuals.

“I think this is going to become commonplace in the next five to 10 years, we are going to see patients demanding this as part of their care,” O’Donnell said.

He would like to see genetic testing become a routine part of a doctor visit but acknowledges people are still concerned about their medical records being hacked and bio data stolen.

“There’s still skepticism on the part of the patients whose hands this information will fall into.”

Security researcher and bio hacker Michael Goetzman has sequenced more than 100 people.

“It’s dangerous given to the wrong individuals or companies or government,” Goetzman said.

Many parents don’t realize that DNA from every newborn in the U.S. is collected by each state’s health department. The DNA is screened for a panel of genetic diseases, and parents are notified if their babies face a health threat. After that, the DNA is stored in a government facility. Some states store these samples indefinitely while some sell it commercially to research companies.

“The negatives to genetic sequencing of newborn children is that the database could be leaked and there could be massive discrimination possibilities,” Goetzman said.

Despite the Government’s role in collecting and protecting DNA samples, there is also fear this technology being used to create a weapon of mass destruction, like creating a pandemic flu strain that could kill thousands. The annual worldwide threat assessment report released last week names gene editing as a viable threat. 

“At the end of the day, if I am determined enough, you cannot stop me from profiling your DNA ... You can’t control the shedding of information from your body,” Dewey-Hagborg said. “To me it was about pointing out this vulnerability.”

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