The Rise and Risks of Ancestry Tests

The Rise and Risks of Ancestry Tests
The V1 Edition

More people took genetic ancestry tests last year than in all previous years combined, and now around 12 million people have had their DNA analysed, according to industry estimates. And most of those tested live in the US, suggesting that the American DNA testing market could be set to boom even further in years to come, with new services and products being offered to consumers.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review suggests the surge was caused by an end-of-the-year price war, where companies were selling the direct-to-consumer tests for under $60, spending millions on advertising and offering two-for-one deals.

Genealogy services analyze a person’s DNA to provide information on their ancestors’ origins. Users can also locate distant family members via DNA matches within their databases. Most companies, such as Ancestry and 23andMe, take a saliva sample by mail and then allow customers to download the data files online, direct to their devices. As more people have access to their genetic data, a slew of new services are promising to make further use of that information. For example, Vinome is a startup that uses a customer’s DNA to predict which kinds of wines they might like.

23andMe also offers “disease tests” that promise to highlight future health risks. The company claims it could analyze someone’s DNA data to determine whether they are vulnerable to diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's. These tests were forced to discontinue by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013, as there were concerns about the accuracy of the testing. However, the FDA lifted the ban in 2017, after establishing “special controls” for the company to follow.

Despite these new requirements put in place, though, some people are still worried that the process could be damaging if genetic counselling isn’t provided. As Dr. Gail P. Jarvik, head of the division of medical genetics at the University of Washington, told the New York Times, “If people know what they are purchasing and understand the results, then I support such tests. It is in the execution that my concerns lie and I will be following that. We have seen patients who did not understand tests they purchased from this company in the past.”