Ever notice how a diet that everyone else is loving just doesn’t work for you?
Or wonder why other people can drink coffee all day, when just a single cup makes you jittery? Maybe you’ve pondered the mystery of how some people thrive on five hours’ sleep, when you need eight?
MyExome, a new DNA test designed by Toronto entrepreneur Zaid Shahatit, claims to be able to provide a little insight into our personal quirks by testing 57 different genes that could determine our ability to metabolize certain things, sleep patterns and physical performance. Pay the money ($150 for the Nutrition kit or $270 for the full Lifestyle analysis), mail in your swab of cheek cells and wait about three weeks for your personalized recommendations for the best diet, exercise regimen and bedtime — according to science.
“Optimally, what I think people should do with this is to use it as a way to structure their life,” says Shahatit, “The goal in all of this is to provide people with a framework where they can really take control of their health and give them specific, instead of general, information so they don’t have to waste time trying things that don’t work for them.”
Shahatit, who has an Honours Bachelor of Science from University of Toronto and is starting an MSc this fall, is launching his product Aug. 10 at https://myexome.com/. It is primarily being marketed to people in the “fitness space,” presumably to those who want to take control of their genetic destiny — a phrase that verges on oxymoronic. Leaving that big question aside, we wondered if it actually works. Can a mail-in DNA test actually reveal all of your inner truths — and help you live your best life? Well, that’s where we might just be getting a little bit ahead of ourselves, says Alexis Carere, a doctor of science from Harvard who is a certified genetic counsellor and a Canadian certified genetic counsellor as well as president of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors.
“These types of tests have been around for a long time and are all based on a similar idea, basically that we can use your genetic variants to predict certain things about you,” says Carere. “And some of these things are more plausible than others, like your genetics can tell you what hair colour you’re likely to have or whether or not you like the taste of cilantro.” Of course, as she points out, for about two bucks, you could also just buy some cilantro and try it.
The fact that some of the information qualifies as “basic,” though, hasn’t hurt the popularity of direct-to-consumer DNA tests like 23andMe, which was the focus of her doctoral dissertation. All the tests identify genetic variants associated with specific traits, from our ability to metabolize caffeine to an elevated risk for obesity.
The big question, though, is, how well-established is the association? Is it based on one study? Or more? Were the studies conducted on humans or rodents? And, if the subjects were human, what size was the sample? And how diverse were the participants?
“This whole field of nutritional genetics hasn’t really been solidified, so most of these tests aren’t really that useful from a clinical perspective,” says Carere. “There’s not a lot you can actually do with this information that you couldn’t do by following the standard recommendations of eating well, exercising and getting lots of sleep. Your genetic status probably isn’t going to change those recommendations very much.”
I asked Shahatit about the status of the nutrigenetics he used to decide which variants to look for. He said, first off, that MyExome wasn’t designed to be a medical test or assessment. He tried, though, to make the most of the existing science by considering findings from studies that had undergone a “meta-analysis” — a way of combining separate studies to analyze and confirm results, since you can’t draw conclusions from a single study.
“A meta-analysis will probably eliminate all the rodent studies, which is good,” says Ameet Sengar, a molecular geneticist. “But it still doesn’t tell us whether or not there’s enough of a diverse background built into those studies, so I’m still concerned about the depth of their data. That’s why I say it’s still early days.”
A meta-analysis depends entirely on the design of the original studies, in other words. Sengar says that, moving forward, the data sets supporting tests like these are likely going to get much better but, in his estimation, it could be 20 years before the dream of truly accurate predictors is realized. Is there a risk then, involved in moving too quickly and putting the proverbial cart before the horse?
“I think five or 10 years ago I would have said there is a risk of people getting information and trying to change their life,” says Carere, “But, over and over again, the research has shown that these tests really don’t change people’s behaviour either way.”
So much for the idea of taking control of our genetic destiny. Humans don’t seem to be very good at that. Carere also wasn’t terribly concerned about the privacy risks, since she says that, while there’s always some concern when giving away genetic information, Shahatit seems to be following all the established protocols for keeping medical information private, noting that “you’re also leaving your DNA around when you drink out of a cup and throw it in the garbage.” Carere does have one hesitation about the name “MyExome” however, since a real exome sequencing test — something she actually works on — analyzes all known functional regions of our DNA and costs about $5,000.
“If consumers purchase this test based on its name, they will be very disappointed in their investment,” she says. “Other than that, I don’t think there’s a significant risk of harm … the only harm being that you’re probably throwing away $280.”
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Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo