Ancestry.com launches health website, positions itself as budding 23andMe competitor

By Jonah Comstock
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Ancestry.comAncestry.com, one of the biggest sites for genealogy in the world, is getting into health. The company officially launched a new website, AncestryHealth.com, in beta today and announced the hire of a Chief Health Officer, Dr. Cathy A. Petti, who has previously held executive roles at HealthSpring Global, TriCore Reference Laboratories, and Novartis.

“Ancestry fundamentally believes family history is a powerful tool that not only can educate individuals about their past and where they came from, but can inform their future,” Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry, said in a statement. “This new service leverages expert research and delivers customized information to consumers about the risks and prevention measures to help empower them to make healthy lifestyle choices. Combined with the breadth and scale of Ancestry data, we expect AncestryHealth to be a key piece of the puzzle as we look to understand how health is passed down through generations, and we are excited to have Dr. Petti lead this effort.”

Ancestry.com currently allows members to maintain online family trees to keep track of their family history. AncestryHealth, which is free to use currently, will initially allow users to make a copy of these family trees but to add health information as well, tracking the chronic conditions and lifestyle choices that affected each family member. The website will then use algorithms to show the user what this might mean for their health.

Once users have their family health history entered, they'll be able to print it out to share with physicians. The company is also exploring integration with electronic health records to help users share data with physicians more directly.

There's reason to believe that AncestryHealth will grow from what it is today as time goes on. Ancestry.com also has a genotyping service called AncestryDNA, which just announced that it has surpassed 1 million people genotyped. Right now, AncestryDNA and AncestryHealth are separate services, with AncestryDNA only returning information about the user's genetic family history.

However, the two units of the company share a General Manager, Ancestry EVP Dr. Ken Chahine, who seemed to imply in a statement that the company has an eye on putting the two together.

"Dr. Petti brings tremendous knowledge and experience in individualized and global health, with expertise in clinical, regulatory and healthcare diagnostics," Chahine said in a statement. "This is invaluable as we set out to create health offerings for our community that integrate with, and leverage the successes of, Ancestry and AncestryDNA.”

If the company does want to leverage the two products together, they will likely have to seek FDA clearance -- a road that genetic testing startup 23andMe has proved can be pretty onerous.

"AncestryHealth is not analyzing members’ DNA information to identify health risks at this time," the company told MobiHealthNews in an email. "Instead, the service focuses on participants’ family health history to provide them more information on their health. AncestryHealth currently does not provide the type of disease diagnosis that is subject to FDA approval. The FDA has generally allowed family health history information to be analyzed to determine health risks."

But, according to the company website, there is one way that data from the two parts of the company might be used together: An opt-in research project based on data collected from users called the "Ancestry Human Diversity Project." Both the beta site for AncestryHealth and AncestryDNA contain an informed consent form for the project, which will de-identify users' data and make it available to third party researchers.

"The Ancestry Human Diversity Project collects, preserves and analyzes genealogical pedigrees, historical records, surveys, family health data, medical and health records, genetic information, and other information (collectively, 'Information') from people all around the world in order to conduct research studies to better understand, among other things, human evolution and migration, population genetics, population health issues, ethnographic diversity and boundaries, genealogy, and the history of our species ('The Project')," the form says. "Researchers hope that the Project will be an invaluable tool for a wide range of scholars interested in genealogy, anthropology, evolution, languages, cultures, medicine, and other topics and that the Project may benefit future generations."

The research angle, which wasn't mentioned in the company's press release, invites another telling comparison to 23andMe, which just raised $79 million to shift its business towards using its data set for research. In March, the company created a therapeutics group led by former Genentech executive Richard Scheller. The group will use 23andMe’s database of consented, re-contactable subjects with sequenced genomes to develop new drugs. In May, the group announced its first major partnership, a 5,000-subject collaboration with Pfizer to study lupus. 23andMe and AncestryDNA have both genotyped just over a million people, and both offer their mail-order gene testing service for $99.