Embark Veterinary launches DNA testing kit for dogs

Embark's DNA test kit for dogs--Courtesy of Embark Veterinary

Animal health startup Embark Veterinary is rolling out a DNA testing kit for dogs that will include information about a canine's ancestry and disease risk. The move comes as scientists and the industry target genomic information in dogs to gain more insights about certain diseases.

The Austin, TX-based company recently announced at the South by Southwest Interactive festival that it plans to market a test that tracks more than 200,000 genetic markers, with the aim of giving pet owners an overview of an animal's genetic disease risk and heritable traits. Embark's product isn't available yet, and the company is staying quiet about pricing. But more details should be released in April, The Austin Business Journal reports.

The company's Embark Dog DNA Test Kit collects DNA from cheek swabs and then flags genetic variants linked to more than 1000 diseases. The kit could be especially useful for breeders who want to know about inherited traits in dogs so they can generate healthier puppies.

Embark's DNA samples could also end up becoming a big source of data for researchers. The company already counts Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine as a research partner, and Embark is planning to carry out its own genetic studies. "This platform, by engaging mass numbers of dog owners, will provide us with data that will enable us to unlock the potential of the dog as a model system," Ryan Boyko, one of Embark's co-founders, told The Verge.

Once the company's tests hit the market this spring, Embark will begin researching dog behavior and nutrition, co-founder Adam Boyko told The Verge. The startup is also conducting studies that look at environmental and genetic risk factors for autoimmune diseases and inherited traits.

Eventually, Embark will share its dog DNA database with researchers, Adam Boyko told The Austin American-Statesman. Scientists typically rely on mice for research, but dogs are well-suited for "translational research" because of their genetic similarities to humans, Boyko said. Correlations between dog genetics and human genetics could help scientists develop gene-based therapies for diseases.

Embark already has investor support in its corner. In November, the company raked in $1.5 million of a planned $2 million in funding from 8 investors, it disclosed in an SEC filing. San Francisco-based Slow Ventures, Los Angeles-based Aspirational Growth Fund and local investor Notley Ventures have all contributed funds.

Embark co-founder Ryan Boyko

But Embark could face some pushback as it charges ahead with its DNA tests. Just because a region of the dog genome is linked with a particular disease, it doesn't mean that an animal will get sick, Cathryn Mellersh, head of canine genetics at the U.K.'s Animal Health Trust, told The Verge. Some pet owners and breeders might not understand this distinction, and Embark does not offer a genetic counseling service that could answer potential questions.

"My fear is that the owners of dogs reported to have an increased risk of developing a particular disease will not breed with that dog, thus possibly reducing the genetic diversity of that breed," Mellersh said.

And even though the FDA doesn't regulate DNA tests for animals, the agency could change its approach in the future. Companies making human DNA tests such as 23andMe have already come under scrutiny by regulators for offering tests direct to consumers.

But Embark's founders don't seem too worried about regulatory obstacles. "We are regulating ourselves and holding ourselves to a very high standard," Ryan Boyko said, as quoted by The Verge. The company, he added, will "make clear with our results that they ultimately need to be interpreted by your veterinarian--with you." 

- read the ABJ story
- get more from The Verge
- read the Austin-American Statesman article
- here's the company's SEC filing