Health Personified

Laura Beaney

6 min read

As our ability to understand the code of life rapidly expands we gain unprecedented power over disease, diet, fitness and beauty. MOJEH decodes the current climate for DNA testing. 

Everyone shares 99.9 per cent of the same DNA but it’s the remaining .1 per cent that’s of interest.  Since the early 2000s DNA tests have become increasingly accessible and expansive. What was once a costly and closed off industry is today a hot topic for dinnertime discussion as guests divulge their surprise at tracing their Apache heritage or discovering their body’s aversion to tomatoes. “I was born in an ethnically diverse part of the world. People there have extremely varied features caused by the centuries of conquest and migration,” says Dr Faysal Succaria a Prosthodontist from Lebanon who recently took an ancestry test.  “The beauty of DNA testing, is that it’s scientific and unbiased, after receiving the results I realised that the knowledge my family had was far from the truth.” And diet and diversity are just a fraction of the story that these tests can tell. From predisposition to rare diseases to skincare formulations completely tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup, we are entering into a new era of enlightenment. But aside from lighthearted dinner debate further developements in DNA testing will transform the future of our health practises, but they also raises questions of ethical concern.

To further understand the power these tests can afford we look to our body on a cellular level. We are made up of millions of cells each with a nucleus at the center, where our DNA exists. Each cell contains a complete copy of an individual’s genetic plan. After a quick cheek swab or blood test, samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis. Amongst other details these tests can reveal our predisposition to suffer from both rare and common diseases. “In the case of rare diseases i.e., PKU, the information tends to be more black and white – one has or does not have the disease, whereas for common diseases i.e. diabetes or cancer the information is about increased or decrease risk,” explains Dr. José M. Ordovás, PhD Director of Nutrition and Genomics at Tufts University. There are two reasons that the results are currently incomplete. Firstly, these diseases are affected by external factors like diet, physical activity, and smoking. Secondly, the genetic component of these common diseases is very complex. We still lack all the clues, but Dr. Ordovás predicts that increased knowledge in this field will allow for two things: early prediction of disease and earlier and more effective prevention using personalised approaches.

The beauty of DNA testing, is that it’s scientific and unbiased, after receiving the results I realised that the knowledge my family had was far from the truth.
Faysal Succaria

And it’s this ability to produce personalised data that’s piquing the interest of other industries. Geneu was the brainchild of Christofer Toumazou a Regius Professor at Imperial College, London. His breakthroughs like the cochlear implant for born-deaf children and the artificial pancreas for Type 1 diabetics have changed the shape of modern-day medicine. In short, if we were to entrust the shape of our skincare to anyone, it would probably be him. Geneu saw Toumazou become the first to bring DNA testing to the realm of beauty. Having elicited a new generation of individualised skincare, he set the foundation for a range of high-grade, anti-ageing products with a personalised approach. Following an in-depth questionnaire to identify lifestyle aspects that may impact skin ageing like smoking and sunlight exposure a DNA test examines two genes – collagen breakdown and anti-oxidant protection, which have been proven to accelerate ageing. Taking the guesswork out of skincare, the genetic results are combined with the lifestyle risks using their proprietary algorithm to create a personalised serum or cream. “The product contains the right ingredients at the right concentrations for you,” explains Dr. Martin Stow, Geneu CEO. Available online, in their Bond Street store and in Selfridges’ Beauty Hall, Geneu products command a cult-like following, its devotees claiming that the range has the transformative effect of an invasive procedure.

And why stop at skincare when there’s a plethora of other targeted tests readily available? Neutrigenomics, the study of nutrition and genetics detects the different ways people respond to food, based on their genetic makeup. A recent study in this area by Stanford University found that those on a diet matched to their genetic type lost 2.5 times more weight than those following other types. “Most of our clients choose the DNA Diet test which is designed to assist a personalised healthy eating plan,” says Katharina Elbracht, Clinical Director and Dietitian at Beyond Nutrition. The DNA Diet provides insight into how each individual reacts to carbohydrates, saturated fats and the intensity of exercise answering questions that a traditional nutritionist simply can’t. “Individuals react differently to dietary approaches and a DNA-based diet can uncover whether a low fat, low carb or the Mediterranean diet is the right approach for you,” says Elbracht. 

Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action
Angelina Jolie

There seem to be few downsides to this highly targeted approach to beauty and wellness, but looking back to health, how much do we really want to know? In 2013 there was a spike in the number of women seeking the test that would reveal whether they were a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. This was thanks to Angelina Jolie who discovered that, as a carrier, she had an 87 per cent risk of breast cancer. The actress whose mother passed away at 56 from the disease made the decision to have a double mastectomy, and after the surgery her risk fell to just five per cent. “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness,” Jolie wrote in the New York Times. “But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

Jolie’s intervention was spurred by a known risk, and this type of testing can have an immediate impact and benefit for subjects with a family history of disease, but predictive testing isn’t for everyone. “I know I am not immortal, but I would like to keep ‘how I am going to go’ a surprise,” admits Dr. Succaria who declined the health test. “When DNA testing is used for predictive analysis, I think it can impact your life and not necessarily for the better. Several questions arise. Would an insurance company cover people without discrimination knowing that they are more prone to a certain disease? Would a couple get married knowing that one of them will develop a terminal disease?” And when it comes to receiving the results who will be able to cope with the information? This is something that will be processed differently from one individual to another. “This is not something for hypochondriacs unless they are very closely supervised by a health professional,” warns Dr. Ordovás.

We have had the capability to map out our individual genetic code for more than a decade (the first successful sequence was in 2003). But at the start of this remarkable journey the technology required was extremely expensive and results took months to appear. Regardless of these setbacks, in 2005 Antony Barnett of The Guardian predicted that by 2007 ‘thousands of Britons’ would be using DNA tests to reveal clues about their origins – and he was right. The floodgates have opened and now anyone can have their ethnicity, physical performance, allergens, skin type and ability to absorb different types of medication tested for less and AED2000 with results available in only 10 days. What seemed like a far removed scientific innovation at the start of the millennium is now expected to reach all corners of the commercial world. For better or worse genetic testing is here to stay.