Bitcoin Funding Ebola Research and Open Access to Medical Research Papers

November 22, 2014 15:30 UTC

Kevin McKernan is a scientist working for the firm Courtagen Life Sciences, which specializes in genomic sequencing. (The process of “figuring out the order of DNA nucleotides, or bases, in a genome—the order of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that make up an organism’s DNA.” [source: Genome News Network]).

Previously, he worked on the Human Genome Project, the most notable and longest running genetics project in the history of mankind, the aim of which was to fully understand human DNA. His own company, Medicinal Genomics, was the first to sequence the DNA of the two primary strains of Cannabis. It was acquired by Courtagen in 2011. As such, McKernan mostly works on diseases like epilepsy and largely works with children.

Patents as Barriers to Innovation

“I have come to recognize that the [copyright] system doesn’t work,” McKernan said in a recent interview with Let’s Talk Bitcoin! Believing that invention, innovation, and the finding of cures happen as a result of necessity rather than incentive, he feels that copyright law has come to actually slow down and inhibit progress, although the copyright and patent systems are supposedly designed to achieve the opposite. “[It is] really tough to swallow when you’re dealing with health care. When patents start getting in front of children getting access to medicine,” he says.

An impetus to this feeling came when his 13-year-old son began asking the scientist a number of questions regarding the 2011 movie Contagion. McKernan says the everyday person’s Google is not as powerful as the researcher’s because a great deal of vital information in medical journals – many of which are funded in whole or in large part by taxpayer-endowed government grants – is trapped behind pay walls.

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Pay Walls Blocking Out Independents

Pay walls are a particular problem with the recent outbreak of Ebolavirus. Independent scientists and researchers may not have the resources to access the genomic data published on the virus, and with something as serious Ebola, no one can be sure where a breakthrough might come from.

“This is really a heinous system of control,” says McKernan. “You’re forced to pay for it but you can’t look at the results, basically,” says Let’s Talk Bitcoin! host Stephanie Murphy (incidentally, a Ph.D in biochemistry herself).

In the old days of publishing, charging for access to the information was done in the form of subscriptions. This was justifiable in that there were considerable costs in producing the publications. But in present day, goes the logic of Mr. McKernan, nearly all costs are covered by the government, yet if a member of the general public wants access to the data that comes from a study after it has been peer-reviewed and published, they must pay a fee which is not justifiable.

Open-Sourcing the Information with the Blockchain

McKernan’s firm Medicinal Genomics is presently running a multi-purpose fund-drive.

“To address the paywalled Ebola manuscripts and their poor use of copyright law we have put forward a Bitcoin address as a survey tool to collect the publics [sic] interest in putting these papers public. Any gift amount provides an address to the blockchain we can consider as a vote. […] We will use the blockchain to ensure all proceeds go to The Broad Institute or Albert Einstein’s College of Medicine to sequence the mitochondrial genomes and NPC1 genes (perhaps whole exomes) of the victims and survivors.”

Donations sent to one address (18PP5UjJViV2setWL3Gnn8HWoFe7xtAU7p) go to the researchers at the above-mentioned institutions (which have access to victim and survivor DNA and therefore are more likely to produce life-saving drugs faster) and serve as an indication that the donor supports open-access to data around Ebola and other medical topics. Donations sent to an alternative address (1PJ3vPJE9q7fetCmSEvH3L1KjMPNxvYVit) will be provided to the journals and indicate that the sender supports the current paywall system.

“We will put in place transparent blockchain means to get all of this funding to the Researcher.”

McKernan is also in the process of implementing multi-signature Bitcoin transactions for this project.

What other ways could cryptocurrency and cryptography aid in the finding of cures for diseases like Ebola? Certainly greater usage of peer-to-peer networks presents a possibility of a shrinking of the world for medical researchers and scientists, but how? Comment below!

Image from Pixabay and Shutterstock

Last modified: November 22, 2014 16:55 UTC

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