ancestry

Christmas shoppers in search of a thoughtful gift that “is personal and says a lot” about the recipient may have just outdone themselves. Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, leading personal genomics company AncestryDNA sold about 1.5 million testing kits designed to provide insights into your ethnicity and familial connections.

Savvy marketing through slick consumer channels has unlocked new levels of sales for genetic testing companies. Amazon has become an increasingly important sales channel for both Ancestry and 23andMe in the two years since they began selling in the “home tests” section of the easy two-click shopping platform.

While Ancestry officials didn’t provide exact sales figures for this year’s Black Friday weekend, they did say they sold three times as many kits as the same time period in 2016, an amount they’d previously reported as 560,000. Going into the long weekend, the company had sold slightly more than 6 million tests since launching the product in 2012. 23andMe declined to give any financial details, but thanks in part to a big price cut, its health test was one of Amazon’s five best-selling items on Black Friday, behind the Amazon Echo Dot, two other Alexa add-ons, and a programmable pressure cooker.

The gift of knowledge, however,  is a double-edged sword and following Senator Chuck Schumer called for increased federal scrutiny of the privacy practices of consumer DNA testing companies, some may doubt the place of a complex product based around the gifting of personal information into a world of small print and data partnerships.

How Safe is Our Data That’s Collected in DNA-Home Tests?

There no reason to believe that these companies have let anyone’s genetic data fall into the hands of hackers but their policies do grant them rights to host, transfer, process, analyse, distribute, and communicate your genetic information. You still technically own your DNA, but they own the rights to the copy they have—after it’s been anonymised and de-identified. Both companies say the primary way they use this genetic data is to improve their products and services. But both have research partnerships that involve exchanging data for money—23andMe with drug companies like Pfizer where the data promise big money pharma breakthroughs and while benefiting medicine, they are naturally a profit-led enterprise and an added layer of security risk for data. Just as Google use our behavioural data to spin a profit so too our deepest biology has an intrinsic cash value.

Pfizer Next To Explore 23andMe’s Data

The recent history of DTC genetic tests has been something of a rollercoaster. Ten genetic health risk reports for direct-to-consumer use by 23andMe were initially granted premarket authorisation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in April after the FDA cracked down on 23andMe in 2013 for selling health-related genetic tests directly to consumers.

In a note of caution, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) responded:  “It is important that consumers considering accessing DTC genetic testing be aware of the type of result that they will get and the types of things that they will have to anticipate in the follow-up of the results,” ACMG said. “In order for risks to be individualized, it will be necessary to repeat the testing and to then integrate that result with other information about the individual to whom the result applies.”

Ultimately, whether to spit in the bottle is a choice for the individual but buyers and curious relatives beware that all that glitters under the lights of the Christmas tree is not gold.