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Google Invites Geneticists to Upload DNA Data to Cloud

Google provided scientists with instructions on how to import, process, store and, of course, search DNA data that could unlock clues to curing diseases.

Googling a person is about to take on a completely new meaning.

The Mountain View, Calif., search giant recently invited geneticists to upload information to the company's cloud infrastructure. Google also provided scientists with instructions on how to import, process, store and, of course, search DNA data that could unlock clues to curing diseases.

Google's foray into genomics could open big markets for a company that has already made substantial investments in health care.

"This whole area, by the way of genome analysis, is really in general a hot area," said George Geis, an adjunct professor who specializes in technology mergers and acquisitions at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

A MarketsandMarkets report valued the global genomics market at $11 billion in 2013 and predicted it will reach $19 billion by 2018. The North American health-care cloud-computing market is also expected to grow fast in that time, up 30 percent to $6.5 billion.

Enormous Databases

Sequencing the human genome can reveal deadly mutations as well as pathways for life-saving drugs. Since one individual's genome can add up to about 100 gigabytes of data, researchers must perform rigorous analysis to pry insights out of enormous databases.

At the same time, scientists and companies must answer questions about where to store the information, who should have access and how to protect privacy.

To help address those concerns, Google recently joined the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, a coalition of health-care providers, research universities, life science firms and others. The group, which met for the first time this month, is trying to encourage the industry to pool resources and establish standards on how to manage the data.

Expanding into Health

For now, Google is providing the genetics community with Web services for free. But "it could very well be something that provides a top-line revenue for them going forward," Geis said.

The company is quickly expanding into health and medicine. Google owns Calico, a biotech company developing technologies to extend human life. In January, Google unveiled a prototype contact lens designed to help diabetics monitor their blood glucose. It also uses aggregated search data to estimate flu activity in more than 25 countries, and once operated a personal health-record service that let users create profiles for their health conditions, medications, allergies and lab results.

Someday, Google could use genetic data to make its own medical discoveries, Geis said.

"It could very well transform Google into another type of company -- it partners with a pharmaceutical company or licenses its discoveries and patents its discoveries," he said.

But Google faces competition from companies large and small already in the genomics-analysis field.

For two years, Amazon's cloud service has hosted the 1,000 Genomes Project, the world's largest database of human genetics. Although the data are public and free, Amazon does charge researchers to use its high-powered computing resources to run data calculations.

'Lots of Room'

"Generally speaking, the cloud space is still in its infancy and there's lots of room, certainly, for industrial players to try to apply their particular implementation of cloud technologies to new areas," said Ramon Felciano, co-founder of Ingenuity Systems. The Redwood City company, which was recently acquired by Qiagen, makes software for analyzing biological data.

DNANexus in Mountain View also provides cloud storage for genetic data. Chief Cloud Officer Omar Serang said the company joined the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health because scientists and companies can't advance research without a common format.

"Information is incredibly siloed," Felciano said.

The sensitive nature of genetic data prevents easy collaboration due to patients' privacy concerns.

"The whole field of genetic research, especially genetic research based off large data sets or well-sequenced genomes, is ripe with privacy and ethical issues," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Privacy Standards

While hospitals and academic institutions must adhere to patient privacy rules, private companies do not necessarily follow those standards, Tien said.

Members of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health are working to develop common policies that govern ethics, data storage and security. For its part, Google says genomic data stored in its cloud is secure.

"Private data remains private, public data is available to the community anywhere," the company said on its website.

Tien remans cautious.

"It may all go well," he said. "But in other cases there will be surprises -- and you don't really want surprises with genetic data."

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle