Irvine, Calif., Jan. 17, 2013 — UC Irvine computer scientists have created an app that could allow an individual to securely store and use his or her own DNA on a smartphone. GenoDroid, they said, could potentially be used for paternity and common-ancestry tests, customized cancer-fighting drugs and more.

“Imagine you’re on a first date,” said Gene Tsudik, professor of computer science. “You and the other person could hold up your phones, exchange tiny amounts of information and be able to tell what your children would look like. Or, more seriously, you might be able to estimate their odds of being born with something like Down syndrome.”

Tested on an Android platform, the app determined in less than half a second whether one person was another’s father. Because of advanced encryption techniques that build on the team’s earlier work, Tsudik said, only a small piece of each person’s DNA was needed, while the rest remained secure.

“A virtual treasure trove of frighteningly personal and sensitive information is contained in one’s genome,” he and fellow authors wrote in a recent paper for the Association for Computing Machinery. “Our protocols only yield the test results and do not disclose individuals’ genomic information.”

Tsudik said: “Maintaining the privacy of your DNA is crucial. Imagine the potential consequences if it were to leak out. For example, you could be denied health or life insurance. When your bank account or your credit card is compromised, it’s painful, but it’s recoverable. You can close the account, wipe the slate clean and start over. You cannot change your DNA once it’s leaked.”

GenoDroid builds on the increasing availability of genome sequencing. Services like 23andme now let consumers send in a cheek swab and receive their own genome in the mail. While DNA digitization can cost hundreds of dollars today, prices are dropping fast. Once people have the information in electronic form, they’ll be able to load it onto their smartphones, and GenoDroid could encrypt it. The UC Irvine team will release the next version of the app when such digitalization becomes commonplace.

Having their genome on a mobile device could enable individuals to learn quickly and cheaply whether they’re genetically predisposed to major health conditions such as Huntington’s disease, certain mental illnesses or additional risks.

GenoDroid also holds promise in the rapidly growing area of personalized medicine. Pharmaceutical companies already produce highly customized drugs for specific cancers and other illnesses based on a patient’s DNA markers. However, some consumers fear losing insurance coverage if their results are shared, Tsudik noted, and companies don’t want to reveal proprietary information about treatments. The electronic “double-blind” nature of GenoDroid offers a solution: Each side performs operations over encrypted versions of the other’s data and learns only the outcome – for instance, match or no match – and nothing more.

The GenoDroid team also included Emiliano De Cristofaro, who earned his doctorate at UC Irvine and is now with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center; Ph.D. student Sky Faber; and Paolo Gasti, a former UC Irvine postdoctoral researcher who’s now with New York Institute of Technology.

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