Monday, July 20, 2015

AncestryHealth: Another company moves into consumer genomics

Sarah Buhr, at TechCrunch:
Family history site Ancestry launched a new generational health database called AncestryHealth today. The news comes right as AncestryDNA – Ancestry’s genetics site that connects those on the platform with distant relatives – announced it now has genotyped more than a million customers. launched in the early 80’s and went public in 2009. It is now the largest genealogical database in the world, holding more than 16 billion family history records from all over the world and more than 70 million user created family trees.

The company saw an opportunity in consumer genetic testing similar to 23andMe three years ago and launched AncestryDNA as a subsidiary of Ancestry’s patented algorithm began matching users to relatives as well as DNA matches to ancestors as far back as the 1700’s. 
By applying genotyping chips to geneaology, AncestryDNA has put themselves in a good niche vis a vis 23andMe. Not only is it potentially much easier to link distant relatives using SNP chip data than it would be to, say, predict users' health risks from the same information, it's very likely to be legally safer.  I doubt there are many (any?) regulatory pitfalls in telling people that they're potentially related to someone that's their second cousin once removed.

Despite the health spin, I'm not so sure how valuable correlating health information between really distant individuals in your family tree will be, except in odd cases of familial diseases. like some cancers.  However, where I think AncestryHealth might actually prove very useful is for users that don't have tight relationships with family members and would like to know the health problems of their grandparent's generation, though that would still depend on someone related to you providing information to AncestryHealth.

In terms of information, the data scientists at organizations like AncestryDNA must be thrilled to wade through a treasure trove of a million genotypes, relatively unrestricted by data access rules in the public sector.  This data aggregation model is essentially similar to 23andMe's: Collect your data first, then decide how to monetize it.

When monetization comes into play, it's easy to put a pessimistic spin on big data collection.DNAeXplained points out that they didn't receive much information beyond what was input, and asks: "What did Ancestry get?  Health, ethnicity and lifestyle information for you and your family to sell along with your DNA information, if you signed the informed consent. If you don’t sign the informed consent, your information can still be utilized,  just without your identity attached, per the verbiage in their terms and conditions, privacy statement and informed consent documents."

With feedback like this, I suspect AncestryHealth is going to work very, very, hard to design some kind of user report that avoids leaving people with the impression that they've just given something precious away and received little in return.

Finally, customer experiences aside, I'll leave you with this thought.  I tend to side with Ken Chahine, SVP at, on this one:
I began my career in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry where it progressed from bench scientist to CEO. During those years I experienced first-hand the inefficiencies and frustration of bringing medicines to market. Simply put, the healthcare industry makes data collection and sharing difficult [Emphasis mine]. The lack of data was one of the two primary reasons that brought me to my current position where I'm helping bring personal genomics to all through direct-to-consumer tests based on the newest breakthroughs in science and technology.