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Unitec and GeneCrypt launch partnership to protect DNA data with encryption software

  • The Unitec and Gene Crypt team
    L to R Gregor Steinhorn, Research Partner - Enterprise, Kris Vette, Founder GeneCrypt, Denis Lavrov, Cybersecurity Research Team Leader

The high risk of genetic data being misused has led Unitec Institute of Technology and start-up company GeneCrypt to partner in the development of a prototype encryption system that protects the genomic data of individuals who have had their DNA sequenced.

Over the past decade, technological advances have made it easy and inexpensive for anyone to have their DNA mapped. However, the mapping of this valuable genomic data is commonly outsourced to offshore companies, raising concerns about adequate oversight of where it is stored or if it can be on-sold.

Ensuring anonymity of this genomic data is another issue that people face, as DNA can also be used to identify an individual’s risk of disease or provide genetic information about their relatives.

Meanwhile, cyber-attackers have increasingly targeted health records as they are valuable internationally for criminal use (financial profile creation), making our genomic data even more attractive for hackers.

GeneCrypt founder Kris Vette says “Our DNA is uniquely ours. Unlike financial and health record data which share common traits, our genomic data is unique. Once stolen, its value does not degrade with time. We can change addresses and cancel credit cards, but not our DNA. Anyone who has access can find out much about us and many health-related issues from that data.” 

“DNA is coded similarly to any digital data stream, and this encryption model will allow people to control who has access to this information and how much access they have.”

The Unitec team is led by Cybersecurity Research Team Leader Denis Lavrov and advised by Cybersecurity Adjunct Professor Christian Probst.

Core technology used in the current GeneCrypt solution is based on research done by Unitec as part of the MBIE funded STRATUS project from 2014 to early 2021. STRATUS’ aim was to return control over data in the cloud back to the users.

Kris has spent his career in healthcare management in various countries and led several start-ups. He says the idea for GeneCrypt Ltd. evolved as he struggled to solve the dual problem of improving health data access for disconnected medical teams and ensuring data security for patients.

Kris says after seeking a prototype developer internationally, he realised that there was a leading-edge cybersecurity lab within New Zealand, at Unitec. 

“Partnering with Unitec has enabled us to develop a world-leading data protection technology globally, right here.”

Unitec’s Research Partner – Enterprise, Gregor Steinhorn says the team at Unitec is excited to see its technology graduating from the research stage to full commercialisation.

“In today’s difficult cybersecurity environment, it is inspiring to see a company like GeneCrypt work proactively on being a step ahead of the attackers - instead of trying to mitigate a disaster after it happened - by developing a protection mechanism where donors have control over their genetic information.”

Kris says GeneCrypt technology could be used as part of standard DNA testing and they are now moving toward a trial of their prototype.

He believes that New Zealand has an opportunity now to build a niche in a rapidly advancing field of human biology by protecting both our individual and collective biological blueprints.

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