Epigenetics is the study of reversible modifications on the genetic material of cells, affecting gene expression mechanisms. They are partly inherited, and partly imputable to environment and life habits. Thanks to advances in next-generation DNA sequencing and multiple international efforts, a vast amount of human epigenetic data is now available to researchers. This data can provide explanations of, and insights into, the interpretation of genome-wide association studies (GWAS), the study of genetic variants in an individual genome. Accessing this data, however, can present a significant challenge. This is due in part to very large file sizes stored across multiple locations, and the fact that data needs to be stored behind secure control mechanisms, to help protect research participants’ privacy.
The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) has already developed tools and standards for sharing genomic data securely and ethically. Extending on this framework, Prof. Guillaume Bourque and Prof. Yann Joly of McGill University will develop mechanisms to make the process of accessing and analyzing epigenomic data more flexible while addressing the ethical, security and privacy aspects of data sharing. To accomplish this, they are developing the EpiShare platform, so that researchers can avoid having to download and clean up data and metadata from different epigenomic projects, a time-consuming effort that makes inefficient use of computing resources. Instead, a web portal will make data more easily discoverable and enable the launch of multi-omics analyses on these controlled-access datasets at their storage location. The EpiShare platform will also ensure that, in the process, participants’ privacy is maintained.