Friday 22 September 2017

Swab your way to better health

Once used solely as a piece of medical technology, DNA testing is increasingly becoming a consumer service. Alex Meehan tries it out

The process is pretty simple - I scrub the inside of my cheek with a thing that looks like a cotton bud, seal it carefully into a miniature test tube and send it off in the post.

A few weeks later my DNA test results have dropped into my email inbox and I have a date via Skype with a boffin who is going to talk me through the results. No, I'm not planning an appearance on 'The Jeremy Kyle Show', and this isn't a paternity test.

It's a fitness test designed to give me access to the same kind of cutting edge science used by professional athletes, and to let me know exactly what I should be eating and how I should be exercising in order to achieve better health.

To say I'm not a gym bunny would be something of an understatement. Netflix plays a bigger role in my 40-something life than the gym, but like everyone else, I'm full of good intentions. And surely the more information you have about yourself the better?

DNA is short for Deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule found in the body that carries the genetic instructions that govern growth, functioning and reproduction in all living organisms. We have it, animals have it, plants have it and even viruses have it. It's found in every cell in the body, and to grossly simplify things, DNA stores the biological information that governs who we are.

While every human being on the planet is 99pc the same, the differences between us are coded into our DNA, and it's these genes that govern whether we're tall, short, what colour our skin is and what basically makes us different from each other.

The DNA test offered by UK company DNAFit tests 45 genes that have been scientifically verified to have an impact on fitness and diet. It's far from a complete picture - there are around 20,000 genes in the average person, and how you live your life has a huge effect on your overall health.

If you eat badly, take little exercise, drink to excess and generally don't look after yourself, then no amount of 'good genes' will prevent ill health. But for those interested in improving their health, it seems that taking a look at your genes can be illuminating.

And it turns out there's a lot to know. My boffin - Tom Lancashire of DNAFit - talks me through two distinct aspects of my genetic profile: fitness and diet.

"Elite athletes try different ways of training for years, and through trial and error reach a point where they have a training regime that works perfectly for them," he says.

"We can shortcut that process by making educated guesses based on your genes of what's likely to work for you. It's not a magic bullet, but we can say what's more or less likely to be effective for you as an individual."

In my gym work, I should apparently be mixing power and endurance type activities more or less equally in order to benefit from my general 'all-rounder' genes, and to improve my intermediate VO2 max tendency (the rate at which I can use oxygen while exercising).

My genetic profile indicates slow free radical clearance, which effects how quickly I can recover from a training session, and I also have an overall higher than average risk of a sports-related soft tissue injury.

When it comes to diet, I learn conclusively something I've long suspected: carbs don't agree with me.

In particular, my genes say I have a medium to high degree of carbohydrate sensitivity and should be consuming a maximum of 8pc of my daily calories through refined carbohydrates, and should be aiming for a glycaemic load maximum of 80 per day.

My report goes on - I have a medium level of sensitivity to saturated fat, a raised need for antioxidants in my diet and a normal level of requirement for Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B, but I am more sensitive than normal to salt. I'm not lactose intolerant, which I could have guessed, but I do have a raised risk of developing coeliac disease.

There's a lot more information than this, around 40 pages of results in all, with enough personalised data to keep even a hardened narcissist happy.

"This isn't just for elite athletes - it's for people who only have 30 minutes a couple of times a week to exercise and want to make sure they're getting the most out of that time," says Lancashire.

"It's a new science so there's a whole range of other genes we don't know about or have research on yet.

"But in saying that, we find that our profiles tend to fit with people's experience of themselves through their lives."

DNA testing started out as a medical test and something that only professional athletes could really justify spending money on. Today it's enormously popular with people who want to trace their ancestry and discover which parts of the world their genetic code comes from.

As prices reduce and the range of applications grow, it seems likely that DNA profiling is here to stay. DNAFit's kits start at €119 for a basic diet profile and increase in price to €338 for a fitness and diet profile with all the bells and whistles.

It's not cheap, but it is definitely illuminating.

The easy availability of DNA testing kits such as this one raises other issues however. We're constantly reminded of the importance of keeping our personal information safe online, so what is the potential future fallout of having our genetic identity fully mapped and out there?

Where is your DNA information going to end up?

Will it be sold? Could it be given to third parties without your permission? Is there a potential for our own genetic profile to be used against us?

It's not hard to see why an insurance company, for example, might want to request a DNA test when assessing the risk of providing health or life insurance.

Likewise, supplement companies might like to market foods and drinks directly to us based on our genetic profile, or medical services based on our likelihood of developing diseases.

To begin with DNAFit said that it won't test anyone under 18, that all data is held confidentially and customer DNA is destroyed after testing.

Going a step further, all data can be destroyed if the customer asks for that and in addition, the company is registered under the UK data protection act and so can't sell information to third parties without consent.

If you're thinking of looking up a similar service, it's probably a good idea to check the same protections are in place.

Irish Independent

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