Methylation array data can simultaneously identify individuals and convey protected health information: An unrecognized ethical concern

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Abstract

Background: Genome-wide methylation arrays are increasingly used tools in studies of complex medical disorders. Because of their expense and potential utility to the scientific community, current federal policy dictates that data from these arrays, like those from genome-wide genotyping arrays, be deposited in publicly available databases. Unlike the genotyping information, access to the expression data is not restricted. An underlying supposition in the current nonrestricted access to methylation data is the belief that protected health and personal identifying information cannot be simultaneously extracted from these arrays. Results: In this communication, we analyze methylation data from the Illumina HumanMethylation450 array and show that genotype at 1,069 highly informative loci, and both alcohol and smoking consumption information, can be derived from the array data. Conclusions: We conclude that both potentially personally identifying information and substance-use histories can be simultaneously derived from methylation array data. Because access to genetic information about a database subject or one of their relatives is critical to the de-identification process, this risk of de-identification is limited at the current time. We propose that access to genome-wide methylation data be restricted to institutionally approved investigators who accede to data use agreements prohibiting re-identification.

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Philibert, R. A., Terry, N., Erwin, C., Philibert, W. J., Beach, S. R. H., & Brody, G. H. (2014). Methylation array data can simultaneously identify individuals and convey protected health information: An unrecognized ethical concern. Clinical Epigenetics, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1868-7083-6-28

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