GEDmatch is a genetic genealogy website with over 1.4M users who want to learn more about their genetic roots. It was set up in 2010 with the mission of using science to connect people and has since been used by amateur and professional researchers and genealogists, as well as adoptees looking for their birth parents. GEDmatch users begin this process of discovery by taking a DNA test from direct to consumer (D2C) companies, like Ancestry, 23&me, My Heritage, Family Tree, and others. They upload the results of this test to GEDmatch, which allows them to compare their history with others, irrespective of which vendor they used.
GEDmatch rose to prominence in the public sphere following the arrest and prosecution of the notorious Golden State Killer. Former California police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, who pled guilty to 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping with robbery, eluded a statewide hunt that began in the 1970s. After decades of traditional police investigative methods turned up few leads, law enforcement got their first break after comparing DNA collected from the crime scenes with matches in GEDmatch, which helped them narrow down the field of suspects. Falling back on well-established investigative methods for suspect inclusion or exclusion the police were able to bring this investigative odyssey to an end with Joseph DeAngelo’s sentencing on August 21st, 2020.
Verogen was founded in August 2017 with the mission of transforming criminal justice and human identification by providing the tools necessary for genetic and biometric linkages. With its acquisition of GEDmatch in 2019, Verogen is driving the adoption of next generation sequencing (NGS) to find answers for cases that were previously unsolvable.
In this interview, we speak with Swathi Kumar, Director of Product Management at Verogen. We discuss what makes GEDmatch such a valuable and unique tool for solving cold cases and identifying John and Jane Doe remains, how Verogen is diligently working to protect the privacy of its users, and what is in store for the future of the platform.
To learn more about how the Golden State Killer case and how genetic genealogy is being used, we invite you to view our YouTube playlist.
Laura: Today, we have Swathi Kumar with us. Swathi, thank you so much for joining us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background.
Swathi: Yes, absolutely. I am Verogen’s Director of Product and Program Management, and as such, I lead Verogen’s global product strategy. My background and training is in genetics. I have a PhD where I minored in statistics and majored in genetics from Penn State University. As part of that, I really got broad exposure to genomics, next generation sequencing technologies, and multi-variant statistics. I took all of that and went to the market leader in genomics. I worked at Illumina in a variety of development, sales, and product management capacities, before I made my way over to Verogen.
Laura: Excellent! Well we’re really glad to have you here. I believe at ISHI this year (our 31st event), you talked about GEDmatch. For viewers who might not know too much about it, can you summarize it and what your talk was about?
Swathi: Oh absolutely. GEDmatch is a genetic genealogy website with over 1.4 million users who really want to learn more about their history, or their stories and roots. It was set up with a mission of using science to connect people since its inception in 2010. It’s been used by amateur and professional researchers and genealogists, including adoptees who are looking for their birth parents. So, GEDmatch users usually begin this process of discovery by taking a DNA test that’s provided by a variety of direct-to-consumer companies, such as Ancestry, 23andMe, Heritage, FamilyTree, and others. They upload the results of this test to GEDmatch, which allows them to compare their history with others, irrespective of the test they performed or the vendor that they used. GEDmatch, of course, rose to prominence after the arrest and prosecution and subsequent sentencing of the notorious Golden State Killer. He was a former California policeman, Joseph D’Angelo, who eventually pled guilty to 13 counts of murder, 13 counts of kidnapping with robbery. The Golden State Killer had eluded this statewide manhunt that had been going on since the 1970’s and after decades of traditionally investigative methodologies turned up little to no clues, the police got their first major breakthrough when they compared the DNA that had been collected at the crime scene with the data in GEDmatch, and that helped them narrow down that field of suspects. So, that’s a little bit about GEDmatch and why ISHI was so focused on this new and emerging field of genetic genealogy.
Laura: Yes, it’s really been interesting over the past few years, and that was an excellent summary. Thank you – that was beautifully done. So, it sounds like a lot of stakeholders are using GEDmatch. Everything from forensics to law enforcement. How are they interacting with it now, and what do you see for the future?
Swathi: That is such a great question, because GEDmatch serves so many distinct users and it’s something that we at Verogen think long and hard about. How do we at Verogen continue to serve these different types of users? So, on one side, you’ve got your traditional genealogists, or your amateur genealogist who’s trying to learn more about themselves. If they are not able to the DNA data, they sometimes recruit the help of other genealogists and we have this community of users in GEDmatch who help them make sense of their DNA data and identify matches. On the other side, increasingly, you also have law enforcement who is looking to use GEDmatch to further the course of public safety. The way that we think about these two distinct user types working at GEDmatch is that we want to make sure that those who use GEDmatch for personal reasons can continue to do so without contacting law enforcement folks, who are using GEDmatch to make society safer. So, what we have been doing at Verogen is distinguishing and delineating these two workflows of the amateur genealogist or the individual user of GEDmatch and really digging deep into how is it that law enforcement or a forensic operational lab could use GEDmatch as a part of their genetic genealogy workflow. At ISHI this year, we announced that we would be launching a dedicated portal for law enforcement. What this allows us to do is to manage these two distinct users separately and engage in a different conversation with each of them. The needs for each user type is unique and their painpoints are unique, and as stewards of GEDmatch, we want to make sure that we’re doing right by both our stakeholders.
Laura: I think that’s wonderful, and that was excellent to hear at this year’s event. I think that sort of segues nicely to the next question. Certainly with any tool like this that is new, there are privacy concerns that are raised. So how are you working with that or addressing that?
Swathi: I’d say it’s top of mind for everybody right now, and rightly so. We are a forensic company, and our mission is to transform criminal justice and human identification by advancing technology that provides genetic and biometric linkages, and as stewards of GEDmatch, what we’ve been doing is really looking across the entire workflow – all the way from starting with the lab (not just within GEDmatch, but outside of GEDmatch) to understand all of the points at which we can minimize privacy concerns. What we also announced at ISHI, is that we would be releasing our own fit for purpose, forensic genealogy assay, that would be tightly coupled with this law enforcement portal. The reason we’re doing this is today, even users of GEDmatch that are law enforcement, use whole-genome sequencing or they used allele-based methods to generate a vast chunk of data (the majority of which is not relevant for forensic use). So, you’re already generating more than you need. The assay that we’re introducing includes only those SNPs or markers that are relevant for forensic searching. So, automatically, we’re trying to reduce that space of DNA data that could give someone pause for concern. What we also do on GEDmatch, once we generate the data, irrespective of if it’s allele-based data or whole sequencing data, to the extent possible, we remove any medically relevant SNPs. So, we strip them out right at the upload stage. That way, what you upload into GEDmatch is usually a subset of what you actually have. Once you upload that, all of that data is encoded. So, no one can really tell you your genotype at that point. And, what we’ve also done at GEDmatch, and we are really steadfast in that point of user privacy and data privacy, so what we’ve done is that we have a number of control privileges within GEDmatch that the user controls. So, you can say, “I want to keep my data private. I don’t want this data for even the average Joe user to do any sort of comparison against.” You could say, “I want that data to be available for comparisons with your average GEDmatch user, because I am looking for familial connections, but I do not want law enforcement to have access to this data.” And, of course, we’ve had so many people after the ABC show, The Genetic Detective, who signed up and literally said they have no interest in performing genetic genealogy searches. They just wanted to share their data with law enforcement so that they could do their part in making society safer, so you always have that level of control as well, where you can say, “I want this data to be accessible for law enforcement to compare their samples against.” So, that’s how we think about privacy at Verogen and GEDmatch. It’s really about putting control back in the hands of our users knowing that they will make the decision that’s right for them.
Laura: I think that’s an excellent description. I think it’ll put a lot of people at ease to know how much control they have, and I think it’s very interesting that you received so much feedback from The Genetic Detective. That’s incredible.
Swathi: At ISHI, I showed a slide that demonstrated the growth rate that we’ve been seeing, and we’ve been seeing a 15% growth since Verogen required GEDmatch, and this has been 8 months. It’s The Genetic Detective and a whole bunch of other tv shows and news articles that have been coming out. Every time that happens, we see a bump in usage, because there are a number of people who want to do their part to making society safer. Everyone wants to be a crime fighter.
Laura: And I think genetic genealogy is so fascinating to everybody. It has a very high popular culture… Every day there’s a new story. What else? What is next for you? Anything we missed?
Swathi: At Verogen, we believe the spectrum of human identification requires quality across the board, so we have made it our mission to advocate for all of those who can’t do that for themselves. To give a voice to those who don’t have one. So, as GEDmatch stewards, we want to empower our users to unlock the story behind every kit. To find more insights to find answers. Similarly with the rest of our product portfolio, we know that without our trusted technologies and breakthroughs, some of these answers might never be found, so we’ve committed to advancing the field of forensics. The cornerstone of our approach is our NDIS-approved platform, the MiSeq FGX. This empowers the forensic community to apply high-quality MPS or NGS data to a diversity of human identification cases. Verogen’s product innovation and product development pipeline is today fully integrated applications that support routine and challenging cases, and moving forward, we expect to evolve these game-changing technologies like forensic genealogy. Via our trusted partnerships, we are also evolving applications like body fluid ID, enhanced phenotyping, and forensic genomics so we can accelerate this space. We are, at Verogen, so focused on bringing this community the latest innovated solutions to solve the unsolvable faster than ever before.
Laura: Well, we certainly appreciate you taking the time to share that with us, participating at ISHI this year. It was very unique having our 31st go virtual. I’d love to hear your impressions of that. How were the sessions you attended, aside from your presentation?
Swathi: I was amazed and blown away by how fantastic this digital venue was. The level of interaction was unexpected. I went in expecting that this would be like a Teams or Zoom call, but it was so professionally managed, so I want to say thank you to the conference organizers. They’ve just done a fantastic job, and thank you to all of the speakers who quickly turned on a dime and delivered such fabulous talks. Quality did not suffer. In fact, I think it made ISHI so much more accessible to people who probably would not have traveled across the oceans to come to Texas, so I am excited to see what something like a virtual ISHI means for conferences like this moving forward. I, for one, was blown away by the quality of the presentations, the level of interaction, and I’m looking forward to ISHI 32.
Laura: I am as well, and it’s really interesting what you just said. We had our largest crowd ever in terms of accessibility, maybe 3 times, because it’s so much easier not to travel. I know we do miss the in-person, because it’s such a tight-knit community, but it was great to see their faces. That does make it so much better.
Swathi: It’s a small, tight, community for sure, and I think, moving forward, all of us can find a balance moving forward between access and having that same type of feel.
Laura: Agreed, the best of both worlds. Thank you Swathi for taking the time to speak with us. We appreciate it so much!
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