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Ancestry Moves Further into Consumer Genetics

The company that began as a source of genealogical data now hopes to marry that information with DNA data—and sell it for research.

With the Thursday launch of its AncestryHealth website, Ancestry continues to play Microsoft to 23andMe’s Apple. It may not be as innovative in the burgeoning field of consumer genetics, but it’s an able competitor nonetheless.

Ancestry entered the field of consumer DNA analysis in 2012 with the launch of AncestryDNA, a $99 spit test that will analyze your DNA for details about your ethnic makeup and connect you with distant relatives. This was five years after 23andMe began to offer similar DNA-testing kits.

Founded in 1983 as a publisher of genealogical data in the form of print books and magazines, Ancestry has kept moving through the ever shifting business landscape of the last 30 years. It launched a website for subscription-based ancestry research in 1996, and it enjoyed a brief period as one of the venture capital darlings of the first dot-com boom. The company, which still makes the bulk of its revenue from its genealogical subscribers, is majority owned by the London-based private equity firm Permira.

In consumer genetics, Ancestry has an advantage over 23andMe in that it already has millions of users’ family trees. AncestryHealth capitalizes on this: the free service will import both family tree data from Ancestry and genetic data from AncestryDNA to create a full picture of family health history.

For consumers, family history is often the first thing doctors ask for to assess health risks, and AncestryHealth is betting that people would rather print out that history from a free website than dredge their memories for half-forgotten details in the five minutes before their doctor’s appointment.

And Ancestry is hoping to sell that data for medical research purposes. “We’re definitely in conversations with multiple groups to assess the value and interest of the information for medical research,” says Ken Chahine, executive VP and general manager of AncestryDNA and AncestryHealth. The data sold to medical researchers will be “anonymized, aggregated, and de-identified,” he says, so that “even if one database were breached, you wouldn’t end up with any information.” 23andMe is already using its genetic data to develop its own drugs, as it announced this March.

Using the data for research brings up the ethical question of whether it would be appropriate to tell consumers if the research shows they are at high risk for a disease. “With the blessing of the FDA and regulators, we would like to communicate with that consumer, whether that is through a physician or a genetic counselor,” says Chahine.

The FDA cracked the door in February to allow 23andMe to market a direct-to-consumer genetic test for Bloom syndrome, and it seems likely that both Ancestry and 23andMe may try to move in the direction of tailoring their tests to specific diseases, depending on the FDA’s signals.

Also on Thursday, AncestryDNA announced its millionth DNA sample—closing in on 23andMe, which announced its millionth sample last month. The latter company was reported last week to be worth just over $1 billion, and according to Reuters, Ancestry’s owners were exploring a sale of the company in May that could value it at between $2.5 billion and $3 billion.

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