Amazon’s cloud data service AWS recently launched Amazon Omics, a tool designed to help researchers and doctors store and analyze sequences of DNA, RNA, and proteins. The service is directed toward the increasingly digitalized world of healthcare, making the categorizing of huge strands of omic data easier.
In simplified terms, the study of omics is the measuring of biological molecules, such as DNA, deliberately and technologically. The study of omics is most famously displayed in the Human Genome Project, which mapped the entire DNA sequence of a human genome. The project took 13 years due to the tedious nature of measuring omics, a problem that Amazon’s service hopes to remedy.
Reviews have been mostly positive from clinicians and researchers but to what extent Amazon stores and utilizes this personal DNA information remains unclear.
Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, the chief medical officer at AWS Omics, said that healthcare researchers do not have a singular database for all the omics measurements they collect. Because of this, 97% of omics data sits stagnant in storage, not being used by other researchers towards a potential next “big” breakthrough.
Kass-Hout told CNBC that a single human genome can take up to 80-150 megabytes of storage. “You’re talking about almost nine Harry Potter’s worth if you want to print it on a printer,” he stated. Amazon Omics helps downsize the process by taking in raw genetic information, storing it in the cloud, and spitting back out a compressed version of only the most crucial data. Amazon calls these “bioinformatics workflows,” which automatically do much of the analyzing that a doctor or researcher would have to do manually.
Kass-Hout looks forward to the advances that will come about through the service. “If the last decade was about the digitization the health and life science industry has gone through, I truly believe the next decade is about making sense of this data in ways now [where] we can find new therapeutics, new diagnostics, and more targeted therapies,” he said.
So far, the service has successfully helped scale down data from large institutions and hospitals. Jeffrey Pennington, chief research informatics officer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, expressed his support for Amazon Omics. “We’re a big pediatric academic medical center, but we’re still not big enough to learn and build everything that is required to make productive use of omic data,” Pennington stated. “Our time and energy, our effort, our financial wherewithal is much better spent putting the puzzle together rather than generating those pieces in the first place.”
On the security end of things, Amazon has remained somewhat vague. Ronald Pulivarti, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, wrote that genetic data is sensitive, akin to credit cards and Social Security numbers. “There are real risks with genomic data if it falls into the wrong hands, such as the ability to discriminate against me or my children, create biological weapons or thwart businesses that rely on genomic data.” Amazon has confirmed that the genetic information stored is “HIPAA eligible,” and users can set parameters on who can access the data they input. However, Amazon has yet to say what role they play in monitoring and using the data given and whether or not that data could be given to third parties.