How much, though, can these results and their interpretations be trusted? ‘My feelings are mixed,’ says Stephen Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London. ‘There are certain cases where genetic tests are tremendously beneficial. Take hypercholesterolaemia. It is an inherited, genetic condition in which your body cannot break down bad cholesterol. If one person has it, you can test their family to assess who has the genetic risk, and give them advice that may be live-saving.
‘Using genetic tests as a first line of health investigation will eventually be the norm, but we do not have sufficient knowledge to do it yet,’ Jones adds. Dr Sharon Moalem, a geneticist and bestselling author of Survival of the Sickest (about how some illnesses confer an evolutionary advantage), agrees. ‘I have a lot of hesitation’, he tells me over the phone from New York. ‘There are too many claims being made, too soon.
‘We know that identical twins, with the same genomes, have different health patterns. The epigenetics, the environment in which your genes function, are tremendously important,’ Moalem adds. He also points out the hazards of testing: ‘If you take a genetic test and find you are at higher risk of something serious, an insurance company can discriminate. A client of mine found a certain gene variant which meant his whole family lost their medical insurance.’ While that would be concerning in the UK, it could mean disaster in the States.
To this end, Moalem’s new book The Gene Restart suggests simple tests that can be done at home as an insight into losing weight. If you chew a water biscuit, for some people the taste turns sweet. Those people have the genetic ability to break down carbohydrates and burn up their energy. If it doesn’t turn sweet, you may be wise to lay off potatoes. After speaking to Moalem, I was mindful of writing this article and sharing my data. However, I had been lucky with my results. I am, though, taking them with a pinch of scepticism.
I put the recommendation for me to eat low-fat dairy and vegetable oils to Karen Alexander, a nutritional therapist at Wild Nutrition. ‘This is archaic advice: corn oil can be very inflammatory and bad for the heart. Also, rather than low-fat milk, it would be far better to have a small amount of full fat.’ When I talked about the test with one friend, he told me he sent off for one because there is a lot of cancer in his family. When he got an apparent genetic ‘All clear’, he went back to smoking.
‘That is lethal,’ comments Jones. ‘If he responds like that, the worst thing he ever did was to take that test.’ Worse still if he went for a test like 23andMe’s, whose accuracy is around 65 per cent, and which in 2013 was banned from giving patients health reports by the US Food and Drug Administration as the reports were deemed unreliable. This year, it relaunched in the States with ‘wellness’ data, but not the genetic risk factors of its original UK test.
Writing this article has made me promise myself I will learn how to check my breasts, and be sure to read up on osteoporosis. The real revelation was not about me, but about where genetic medicine is heading. I ask Wallerstorfer about the future of genetic medicine. He jokes that he knows his own future: if he has children with his girlfriend, because of his ginger gene every second child will be strawberry blond.
More seriously, he adds that by 2050, ‘I think we will test children at birth, you will be able to alter their risk of genetic diseases at that time – and then bring them up with the ultimate nutrition and exercise programmes for their genes.’ For the moment, though, unless you have plenty of money to throw around, you may be better off taking regular exercise, drinking less, eating well – and maybe investing 80p in some water biscuits.
The Pure Genetic Lifestyle test costs £450 for a full Pharma, Nutrition and Weight test, and £1,365 for the book; puregeneticlifestyle.com .