Ancestry Branches Out Into Genetic Health Screening

By Condé Nast

Ancestry, the DNA-testing company best known for helping people discover their roots, is finally leaving its own behind. On Tuesday, the firm that has so far collected spit from more than 15 million amateur genealogists unveiled its long-awaited plans to expand beyond family-tree-building and into genetic screening for potential health problems.

The new division, dubbed AncestryHealth, launches today with two new offerings. The first is a one-time test for nine hereditary conditions, including breast and colon cancer, heart disease, and blood disorders. It’s based on the same DNA chip the company uses to estimate where in the world your ancestors lived, and it will be immediately available to anyone for $149 ($49 for existing AncestryDNA customers). A subscription service based on more advanced sequencing technology, which provides quarterly updates on a wider set of health concerns, will roll out next year at a cost of $199 plus $49 for every six months of updates. As a nod to the company’s namesake, both services will also include a tool for tracking family health history to make it easier to share with physicians.

Unlike its biggest competitor, 23andMe, Ancestry has not had these new tests approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for sale directly to customers. Instead, the company is partnering with a network of physicians who will order the tests on behalf of customers—a model used by other health-centric DNA-testing startups, including Helix, Veritas Genetics, and Color Genomics.

Ancestry’s latest moves shouldn’t come as a surprise. Company executives have hinted at a health play as far back as 2014. The following year, it briefly hosted a beta version of a generational health database (confusingly also named AncestryHealth). And in a partnership that ended last year, Ancestry collaborated with Google-owned Calico to comb customer DNA for genes that affect human lifespan. Ancestry customers learned last week via email that the company would soon start selling health tests like those offered by its biggest rival, 23andMe. But the details of today’s announcement are sure to spark a new chapter in the two companies’ battle for DNA-testing dominance.

“I’ve always been very interested in making sure that we’re delivering on the full promise of genomics, whether that’s for family history or health,” says Ancestry’s chief scientific officer, Catherine Ball, who left a research director position at Stanford eight years ago to join the company. So why the wait? Because now, says Ball, the company can afford to start sequencing people’s entire genome instead of just taking a snapshot. (Well, the important part of it, the exome, which is the DNA that codes for proteins; Ancestry won’t be sequencing the “junk” sections.)

To estimate where customers’ ancestors came from or match them with long-lost genetic relatives, Ancestry uses the same technology it did when it first launched its DNA tests in 2012. Called genotyping, it captures about 700,000 snippets of your genetic code. 23andMe also uses genotyping to run its tests; it was planning to upgrade to sequencing, but abandoned those plans in 2016 out of uncertainty that the market could support their additional cost and complexity. Compared to sequencing, genotyping is cheap and quick, but it can miss hidden medical risks lurking elsewhere in the genome. And genotyping chips have to be updated every few years to keep up with the pace of scientific discovery. A study in 2018 might turn up a link between depression and genetic variant X, but if genetic variant X was only added to chips in 2016, anyone tested before then wouldn’t be able to find out if they had that genetic association.