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Living DNA Claims New Test Can Break Down Customers' Ancestry to Regional Level


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Living DNA, a British consumer genomics startup, recently started offering an ancestry test that it claims can provide the most specific results on the market.

David Nicholson, managing director at the Somerset-based firm, claimed that Living DNA can break down the origins of a customer’s ancestry into 80 worldwide populations and regions, including 21 distinct areas within Britain alone, distinguishing it from competing services.

Priced at £120 ($156) in the UK and $159 in the US, the test is available immediately worldwide and Living DNA will begin shipping kits to customers in mid-October, Nicholson told GenomeWeb.

Living DNA's service, which is based on a new custom Illumina array, is the result of the company's consultations with more than 100 geneticists over the past two years, including the University of Oxford-led team behind the People of the British Isles Study, which produced a fine-scale genetic map of the UK. The results of that study were published in Nature last year.

Nicholson said that it has been Living DNA’s ambition to take the most current population genetics research and make it available as a consumer genomics product.

"There is a lot of fantastic research done in academia, but we wanted to get it out to the public," Nicholson said. "The question for us was, how do we take great research and allow people to access that?"

Over the past two years, Living DNA has worked with researchers not only at Oxford, but also at University College London and the University of Bristol to develop its product. Nicholson credited this collaborative approach with giving Living DNA a design edge in a crowded global ancestry testing market that includes AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, National Geographic's Genographic Project, and 23andMe, all of which also use Illumina chips and provide similar biogeographical results that break down a customer's ancestry into diverse regions of origin.

Another, more local competitor is Edinburgh, UK-based ScotlandsDNA, which has been offering an ancestry DNA testing service called Chromo2 to British and Irish customers since 2014.

"We had a team of dozens, some with 20 or 30 years experience, collaborating together to create this commercial product," said Nicholson. "You can’t just go out and hire these people," he said. "The result is a level of testing that gives people in the market what they were looking for."

Founded earlier this year, Living DNA is a subsidiary of DNA Worldwide Group, a 12-year-old company that offers a variety of DNA testing services. Its laboratory needs are handled by Eurofins in Denmark. Nicholson did not comment on the size of Living DNA's staff, but DNA Worldwide says it employs 35 people at its Somerset headquarters. He said the company has a facility in the US and is in the process of establishing one in Australia.

Living DNA service employs its custom-built Living DNA Orion Chip. The design is based on Illumina's new Infinium Global Screening Array, which contains about 660,000 markers and is manufactured in a multiplex format that allows users to process 24 samples on each chip.

Most competitors use designs built on Illumina's 24-OmniExpress BeadChip, although Illumina named 23andMe as an initial customer for the Global Screening Array in June.

"We worked with Illumina to craft the ideal chip for this kind of testing," said Nicholson. "And we custom-picked tens of thousands of SNPs to give us power on a worldwide basis," he said, noting that while Living DNA is the first to offer fine-scale results for the UK, the test is "not just a UK product" and that it was "built to work even if customers have no British ancestry." The level of analysis will also increase for people with ancestry from other countries, enabling results as detailed as the ones it now offers for its British clients.

"It’s our aim to take the same approach and do it in many other countries," Nicholson said.

Nicholson noted that the company's initial orders have been from an international client base, with 45 percent of orders originating within the UK, while 40 percent are coming from American and 15 percent from Australian customers. All orders are managed from the UK.

Altogether, Living DNA's array includes 656,000 autosomal family markers, 4,700 mitochondrial DNA markers, and 22,000 Y-chromosomal markers, Nicholson said. The mtDNA and Y markers will allow the company to offer customers information about the origins of their deep maternal and paternal ancestors, respectively, competing directly with the Genographic Project, which also offers deep mtDNA and Y testing as part of its DNA ancestry test service. 23andMe is another consumer genomics firm that includes mtDNA and Y results in its service.

According to Nicholson, Living DNA customers do not pay for a one-off test, but rather a lifetime membership, meaning their results will be continuously updated over time as more research informs upgrades to the service. He also stressed that the data held by Living DNA will not be sold, and that customers will be able to download their data and upload it to third party analysis sites, like GEDmatch. Customers may opt in to be part of academic research, though.

Living DNA also plans to allow customers of other companies to upload their raw DNA data to its website for analysis for a small fee, similar to Family Tree DNA's offering. A chromosome browser, enabling customers to visualize their results across their chromosomes, is also in development. Both upgrades will become available in 2017, Nicholson said.

At a time when consumer genomics companies are increasingly focused on improving their online experiences, notably with a move to mobile applications, Living DNA has decided to provide customers with print-on-demand books of their results. Nicholson acknowledged that part of the ancestry testing customer base is older customers, who are less comfortable with accessing their data online and would rather "browse their ancestry" from a coffee table book.

The book costs £39.

Debbie Kennett, an ancestry testing industry observer, reviewed the test recently, calling it a "very welcome addition to the genetic ancestry marketplace" because it specifically caters to the British and European markets.

"The admixture tests currently provided by the big three genetic genealogy companies are primarily serving the very different needs of the American market," Kennett wrote. "Access to the [People of the British Isles] dataset is what we've all been waiting for."

In an interview with GenomeWeb, Kennett reiterated that the test is "likely to be of particular interest to people of British ancestry for whom the currently available tests are not very informative." She also predicted the test will have a "wide appeal for people in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries that have British ancesty."

"It's interesting to see this test emerge that focuses on the British Isles," said Roberta Estes, author of the blog DNAeXplained. "I really do have to wonder if there is enough differentiation in the DNA of the people of the British Isles to reliably divide the results accurately into categories," she told GenomeWeb. "Having said that, the only way to find out is for people to test," Estes added.  "Even though I am American and my heritage is mixed, I know for sure that I have multiple family lines from Lancashire and also from Kent, so I'll be interested to see if that heritage is shown in my results."