Ancestry Branches Out Into Genetic Health Screening

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Ancestry has been working with Quest Diagnostics to build out a new lab to handle the sequencing, and the plan is to start returning full exome data—the sequences that code for proteins—to customers next year. Customers that purchase this option will receive results from the genotyping health test in the meantime. While Ball wouldn’t put a number on how many exomes it expects to be able to process right away, it’s fair to say Ancestry is aiming for sequencing data supremacy. “If we do this right, we’ll rapidly be the largest human genome sequencing lab in the world,” says Ball.

That could mean a potential new revenue stream for Ancestry, as pharmaceutical companies increasingly look to mine genetic health data for insights into new drugs and diagnostics. Last year, 23andMe signed a drug discovery deal with GlaxoSmithKline worth $300 million. While Ancestry executives have entertained pursuing similar partnerships in the past, Ball is tightlipped when asked about any current or future collaborations with drugmakers. “We have absolutely no plans to do that at this point,” she says.

Perhaps not, but as Bloomberg reported last week, Ancestry appears to be hiring for a number of health-related positions, including a chief medical officer. The company declined to confirm, saying only that it is “making a long-term commitment to health.” Still, that doesn’t mean Ball isn’t thinking of what might be possible when you combine sequencing data with the company’s vast trove of genealogical records. “With time we might be able to come up with more sophisticated polygenic scores to help us estimate people’s risk for disease, or to predict the time of onset, or reveal therapeutic pathways,” she says. (Translation: figuring out who’s going to get sick, when they’re going to get sick, and how to make them better.) “But those are things that are in the dreamy future.”

Finding additional ways to secure future revenue has become a theme this year in the DNA-testing world, as sales of consumer-focused products have declined amid mounting privacy concerns and the thinning of the early adopter wave.

In May, for example, another genealogy-focused competitor, MyHeritage, launched its own physician-ordered health tests. To further extend its reach into the health market, last month it also acquired Promethease, a site where hundreds of thousands of people have uploaded their 23andMe or Ancestry data to get additional health information beyond those company’s curated reports. “We know we can get people interested in genealogy, it’s easier to get those people because in genealogy DNA mostly delivers good news,” says MyHeritage chief science officer, Yaniv Erlich. “With health, the things DNA can deliver are mostly negative, so the psychology is quite different.”

Since it already offers both health and ancestry testing, 23andMe has had to get a bit more creative in order to scoop up more revenue. As Stat reported in September, 23andMe has begun using its 10-million-strong customer database to build a clinical trial recruitment business.

Earlier this month it also launched a new VIP service: For $499, customers get two health and ancestry kits, overnight shipping, and priority lab processing, as well as a 30-minute review of their ancestry results with a 23andMe specialist. It does not include genetic counseling. And in a swipe back at Ancestry, 23andMe also introduced a new family tree feature this month. The company’s relationship-predicting algorithm automatically populates a family pedigree, filled with any genetic relatives in its database, for customers “who want to understand their recent family history but don’t want the hassle of building a traditional family tree from scratch,” according to the company’s blog post.

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