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How Indian DNA Test Startup Mapmygenome Draws From Astrology

May 3, 2017, 8:31 PM UTC

In Hindu culture, birth charts hold special significance.

These Vedic horoscopes, called “Janampatri,” lay out the positions of celestial bodies—like the sun, moon, and planets—at the time of a person’s birth so as to reveal information, purportedly, about that person’s life. People consult them to learn what the heavens have supposedly preordained about their marriage compatibility, health, and wealth.

Even though scientists dismiss the practice, when Anu Acharya founded Mapmygenome, a DNA testing startup in India, she decided to give the folk tradition a nod. Acharya, who is CEO of the Hyderabad-based company, markets home DNA testing kits under a name that cleverly alludes to Janampatri. They’re called “Genomepatri.”

“Genomics was not something that was naturally relatable to most consumers in India,” Acharya told an audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, Calif. on Wednesday morning. “So we said what is the closest thing that people can relate to, and that was astrology.”

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The analogy makes sense, as Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky pointed out on stage: “It’s a taxonomy for understanding life.”

“I’m not making a judgment on whether the Janampatri is scientifically right,” Acharya replied. “But it essentially gives you a guidance on whether you should marry somebody.”

Extending the astrological analogy, Acharya noted that people carrying genes that put offspring at high risk for certain heritable diseases might decide on the right mate based on their genetic profiles. The tests use a swab of saliva to determine a person’s genetic makeup.

Some genes are associated with higher incidences of certain diseases, like cancer or Parkinson’s. Women who have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations are, for instance, at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

On stage as well, Alejandra Campoverdi, a women’s health advocate and former White House aide under former President Barack Obama, said that she had recently taken a genetic test to determine if she might be a carrier of the BRCA mutation as several members of her family had been diagnosed with breast cancer over the years. Campoverdi learned that she is indeed a carrier, a finding that has persuaded her to eventually undergo a double mastectomy, a personal choice that matches the recommendations of her doctors.

Acharya believes that genetic testing will help pave the way for preventative health care. She formerly founded Ocimum Bio Solutions, another genetic testing company.

“I just got an offer from somebody who is an astrologer and is a VC who said that we should do a study of both of them together,” Acharya said.