Millions of people are testing their DNA with kits that tell them their family history and let them examine certain health risks, all by spitting in a tube at home.
Each of those samples contains data that could be tremendously valuable to scientific researchers looking to understand diseases and discover new treatments. But many consumers are opting out of sharing their health information with the research community.
A group of scientists and engineers think they’ve found the trick to get people to opt-in: cryptocurrency.
Starting in the first quarter of 2018, users of DNA tests will be able to share their information in exchange for a virtual currency called Luna Coin. The idea is that contributors of personal data should be financially rewarded, especially if what they provide is being used to help pharmaceutical companies find and develop new drug targets.
“We view that as an asset and want everybody to realize the value of that asset,” said Michael Witz, a Luna Coin co-founder and the project’s cryptocurrency expert.
That’s a dramatic shift away from models spearheaded by companies like 23andMe, which offer users the opportunity to share their DNA for research but do not pay them for it. Instead, 23andMe makes money by selling access to that data to pharmaceutical makers like Genentech.
To flip the model, Luna Coin is playing into the emerging craze around cryptocurrencies. Following the surging popularity of bitcoin, hundreds of digital currencies have been created for all sorts of niche economies, from gaming and digital entertainment to buying and selling legal cannabis.