Would you take a new £1,300 DNA test that could save your life?

DNA healthcare is set to revolutionise healthcare. Will you be taking this leading test?

On a wet Wednesday morning I’m reading a glossy, A3-sized health report that promises to unpack the secrets of my DNA. It informs me that I’m twice as likely to get heart disease as the average person. How cheery: I’m in my mid-30s and have so far had a reasonably clean bill of health, so seeing those words makes my stomach drop. As far as I can recall there isn’t any family history of heart disease. The only relief is that my chances of dying from sudden cardiac arrest or Alzheimer’s are normal.

This insight into my health is the result of a new DNA test from Pure Genetic Lifestyle. Promising a 99.97 per cent accurate test process, it sets itself apart from the myriad other DNA tests available – but will set you back £1,300. The process is simple: you fill out a health questionnaire and post three mouth swabs to Holland. Within four weeks you receive an elegant-looking book that promises revelations about your body.

Heart disease aside, my results are riveting: as well as assessing my risks of illness – and how to minimise them – the report describes which foods will make me put on weight; the sports that I should be naturally good at; even the medicines my body can utilise and the ones I won’t be able to break down. Such tests herald a revolution in our understanding of health, but first things first. What is DNA, exactly?

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contains the genetic blueprint that tells our cells how to grow and function. It is shaped in two strands that wrap around each other in a double-helix (famously discovered by Watson and Crick). DNA is made up of four basic building blocks, known as bases. The sequence of these bases determines our genetic makeup, containing enough information to make a particular protein that is called a gene. We have some 20,000 genes. Pure Genetic Lifestyle says it tests the 427 genes that commonly contain faults which increase your risk of disease – and where the risks can be mitigated by lifestyle changes. It does not analyse the genes whose effects you can do nothing about.

Still, it isn’t every day I learn I may be heading toward heart disease. Is a twice higher than average risk bad? ‘Ethically, we cannot do more than give you a comparison to the average risk,’ explains the company’s founder Maarten van Dijk, a remarkably tall and hearty Dutchman who previously ran Holland’s premier health and beauty spa, Elysium. ‘If, for example, you are 85 years old, your risk of Alzheimer’s is already one in five. You may well not wish to know that. The results we give are not about scaring people, they are about encouraging people to change their lives and be well.’

Now that I’ve been told my risk factor, I will do my best to follow the heart-related advice, but I suspect it will prove easy to stick to the bits I already do – exercise, eat healthily, don’t smoke – but I’ll struggle to keep alcohol down to one drink a day. Perhaps more achievable are recommendations related to other health risks – to check my breasts for lumps, and to switch up the amount of impact sport I do (my risk of osteoporosis was also double the norm). But the advice all seems quite generic.

I asked Dr Daniel Wallerstorfer, the Austrian epigeneticist who developed the Pure Genetic Lifestyle programme, for some more bespoke examples. ‘The test might discover you have a gene for haemochromatosis. This is a disorder where your body absorbs too much iron, which, over time, can lead to liver cirrhosis. If the test tells you that you are at risk, it may be that giving blood regularly will bring your iron levels down, and save you from a potentially life-threatening disease,’ he says.

‘We began doing these tests thinking in terms of disease-prevention,’ he continues. ‘But, in fact, weight-management is a far more popular use for them than not dying of a disease.’ Knowing your genetic predisposition to burn fat, or your body’s ability to break down carbs, can enable you to determine a diet that may be terrifically more effective. Clients following the Pure Genetic Lifestyle nutrition programme lost more than double the control group.

The nutritional element of the test also cross-references a long list of foods with some 40 factors (how well you break down mercury, how much you need antioxidants to avoid various illnesses, whether you are at risk of heart disease from cholesterol etc) to determine your optimal diet. My results suggest that I should take extra magnesium, as I have a larger than average genetic requirement, and drink low-fat milk to reduce the risk for my heart. My body seems to break down most medicine normally, including antibiotics.

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 .

Original article published in Stella Magazine, Sunday Telegraph, in February, 2017

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