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Ancestry.com Mulls Adding Family Health Info to Autosomal DNA Genetic Genealogy Service

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Ancestry.com is considering expanding its genetic genealogy services to include family health-related information: The Provo, Utah-based online company recently sent out a survey to customers to gauge what kind of family health information might be of greatest interest to them.

Angie Bush, a molecular genealogist, authored an Aug. 12 post about Ancestry.com's new outreach on the blog Your Genetic Genealogist. A company spokesperson confirmed with BioArray News that the firm is in the "early stages of exploring family health history as a part of our company's offering," but declined to further elaborate.

Ancestry.com first rolled out is autosomal DNA testing service in May 2012. The offering relies on a 700,000-marker Illumina BeadChip to genotype participants. The resulting array data are then used to assign relationships with other clients who have been tested, as well as to provide a so-called biogeographical analysis, where a customer can learn what proportions of their ancestry came from 26 global regions.

The company has continued to upgrade its service since that time, introducing new cousin-matching algorithms and more precise ethnicity predictors. In its most recent earnings call, company executives revealed that the firm has genotyped about 500,000 people to date. But Ancestry.com has still shied from including health-related information as part of its AncestryDNA service.

With its new survey, however, Ancestry.com is testing the waters for such a move. In it, the company queries customers about what they consider the benefits of including family health information to be, asking them to rank the importance of knowing one's risk for certain diseases, having access to family health data that can be shared with a doctor, and the desire to share such information with others.

Ancestry.com also asked survey participants what kind of information would most interest them if they were to use a family health history website, offering options such as the ability to track medications, to gather and share health data with other clients, and to obtain health insights from their own DNA.

To round out its survey, Ancestry.com asked participants if they would be more likely to use such a family health history website if it included a consultation with a doctor and recommendations on follow-up medical tests. The company also queried survey takers as to their desire to anonymously share health-related information with other participants.

Though Ancestry.com is staying mum about its intentions, the survey turned heads among the genetic genealogy community, especially in the context of 23andMe's decision to suspend the personal health portion of its consumer genomics service after it received a warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration last year.

"Will AncestryDNA now be subject to the same FDA guidelines that are currently prohibiting health information from 23andMe, and if so, will Ancestry join the effort with 23andMe to allow this type of information to be provided to consumers?" Bush asked in her post.

Bush did not respond to an email seeking additional comment. In her post, though, she praised Ancestry.com's interest in combining detailed family histories with genetic data, given the company's focus on genealogy.

"In my opinion, 23andMe has missed a significant opportunity to link family histories with genetic data and make ground-breaking discoveries," Bush wrote. "From this survey, it appears that Ancestry.com recognizes the value of this information."

The idea of linking family histories, genetic data, and health information in one database has not been an uncommon one in the world of consumer genomics, whichis dominated by ancestry testing.

Last year, Gene by Gene CSO David Mittelman and Razib Khan, author of the blog Gene Expression and an industry observer, co-authored an article in Genome Biology about the future of consumer genomics that predicted such a convergence. In the article, they argued that while ancestry and genealogy may dominate the consumer space in the years to come, it seems likely that a "natural segue" will be made to medical genomics.

"Genetic genealogy is an applied enterprise of phylogenetics, but adding phenotypic information to the rich implicit pedigrees may finally allow for both true and surprising outcomes in regards to health risk prediction and the general interpretation of genome variants," Mittelman and Khan wrote.

Like Ancestry.com, Gene by Gene's Family Tree DNA business offers an array-based, autosomal testing service called Population Finder. The company offers a number of medical tests, including a recently launched Clinical Carrier Screening Array for Jewish populations, but these tests are not yet offered directly to customers, Mittelman pointed out in an email this week.

"Like lots of folks, we feel that the two fields will converge," said Mittelman of the idea of linking genetic genealogy with family health history. "It will be interesting to see how the space develops," he added, noting that "carrier screening and ancestry testing are natural complements, as carrier status often tracks with ancestry."

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