The Next Pseudoscience Health Craze Is All About Genetics

The Next Pseudoscience Health Craze Is All About GeneticsRecently, Vitaliy Husar received results from a DNA screening that changed his life. It wasn’t a gene that suggested a high likelihood of cancer or a shocking revelation about his family tree. It was his diet. It was all wrong.

That was, at least, according to DNA Lifestyle Coach, a startup that offers consumers advice on diet, exercise and other aspects of daily life based on genetics alone. Husar, a 38-year-old telecom salesman, had spent most of his life eating the sort of Eastern European fare typical of his native Ukraine: lots of meat, potatoes, salt and saturated fats. DNA Lifestyle Coach suggested his body might appreciate a more Mediterranean diet instead.

“They show you which genes are linked to what traits, and link you to the research,” Husar told Gizmodo. “There is science behind it.”

DNA Lifestyle Coach isn’t the only company hoping to turn our genetics into a lifestyle product. In the past decade, DNA sequencing has gotten really, really cheap, positioning genetics to become the next big consumer health craze. The sales pitch—a roadmap for life encoded in your very own DNA—can be hard to resist. But scientists are skeptical that we’ve decrypted enough about the human genome to turn strings of As, Ts, Cs and Gs into useful personalized lifestyle advice.

Indeed, that lifestyle advice has a tendency to sound more like it was divined from a health-conscious oracle than from actual science. Take, for instance, DNA Lifestyle Coach’s recommendation that one client “drink 750ml of cloudy apple juice everyday to lose body fat.”

“Millions of people have had genotyping done, but few people have had their whole genome sequenced,” Eric Topol, a geneticist at Scripps in San Diego, told Gizmodo. Most consumer DNA testing companies, like 23andMe, offer genotyping, which examines small snippets of DNA for well-studied variations. Genome sequencing, on the other hand, decodes a person’s entire genetic makeup. In many cases, there just isn’t enough science concerning the genes in question to accurately predict, say, whether you should steer clear of carbs.

“We need billions of people to get their genome sequenced to be able to give people information like what kind of diet to follow,” Topol said.

Husar stumbled upon the Kickstarter page for DNA Lifestyle Coach after getting his DNA tested via 23andMe a few years earlier. He wondered whether there was more information to be gleaned from his results. So six months ago, he downloaded his 23andMe data and uploaded it to DNA Lifestyle Coach. Each test costs between $60 and $70.

“I’m always looking for some ways to learn about my health, myself, my body,” said Husar, who contributed to the company’s Kickstarter back in 2015.

The advice he got back was incredibly specific. According to DNA Lifestyle Coach, he needed to start taking supplements of vitamins B12, D and E. He needed more iodine in his diet, and a lot less sodium. DNA Lifestyle Coach recommended that 55 percent of his fat consumption come from monounsaturated fats like olive oil, rather than the sunflower oil popular in Ukraine. Oh, and he needed to change his workout to focus more on endurance and less on speed and power.

He switched up his workout and his diet, and added vitamin supplements to his daily routine. The results, he found, were hard to dispute: He lost six pounds, and for the first time in memory didn’t spend Kiev’s long harsh winter stuck with a bad case of the winter blues.

For now, DNA Lifestyle Coach’s “interpretation engine” only offers consumers advice on diet and exercise, but in the coming months it plans to roll out genetics-based guidance on skin care, dental care and stress management. The company wants to tell you what SPF of sunscreen to use to decrease your risk of cancer, and which beauty products to use to delay the visible effects of aging. Its founders told Gizmodo that eventually they envision being able to offer their customers recipes for specific meals to whip up for dinner, optimized for their genetic makeup.

DNA Lifestyle Coach joins a growing list of technology companies attempting to spin DNA testing results into a must-have product. The DNA sequencing company Helix plans to launch an “app store for genetics” later this year. One of its partners is Vinome, a wine club that for $149 a quarter sends you wine selected based on your DNA. Orig3n offers genetics-based assessments of fitness, mental health, skin, nutrition and even—obviously unscientific—which superpower you are most likely to have. The CEO of the health-focused Veritas Genetics told Gizmodo that the company hopes to create a “Netflix for genetics,” where consumers pay for a subscription to receive updated information on their genome for the rest of their life.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we believe that DNA will become an integrated part of everyday life,” Helix co-founder Justin Kao told Gizmodo. “The same way people use data to determine which movie to see or which restaurant to eat at, people will one day use their own DNA data to help guide everyday experiences.”

Few would debate that our capability to decipher information from our genetic code is getting a lot more sophisticated. Just a decade ago, a bargain-basement deal on whole genome sequencing would run you $300,000. Recently, DNA sequencing company Illumina announced plans do it for just $100 within the next decade. Every day, researchers discover new links between our health, our environment, and our genetics.

But much of this research is still preliminary, and many of the studies are small. DNA Lifestyle Coach’s advice to drink 750ml of cloudy apple juice for fat loss, for instance, stemmed from a study of just 68 non-smoking men. Those results, while promising, still require much larger studies to confirm. Suggesting that the same regiment might work for consumers is a little like reading the leaves at the bottom of a tea cup—extracting meaning from patterns that aren’t necessarily there.

Not to mention that the information our genes offer up is probabilistic, not deterministic. You may have run into this if you’ve done an ancestry DNA test and received results indicating that your parents are only “very likely” your parents. More often than not, many genes contribute to a specific trait—like taste—and how those genes all interact is complex and poorly understood web. To complicate matters further, the expression of genes is often impacted by our behavior and the environment. If you have a gene that raises the risk for skin cancer, but live in overcast Seattle and don’t ever go outside, your chances of getting cancer are probably slimmer than someone who lives in Los Angeles and spends every day in the sun without slapping on some sunblock.

DNA Lifestyle Coach, though, wants to offer its customers simple, actionable advice, and so omits all this confusing gray area from its results. Instead, the recommendations are clear and specific, from how much Vitamin A to take to how many cups of coffee a day are most beneficial. It’s a bit reminiscent of a long-term weather forecast spitting out predictions for sunshine or rain 30 days in advance—yes, such predictions can be made, but most meteorologists will tell you they’re borderline useless.

“We use a series of algorithms which rank studies by reliability of results,” the company website explains. “Studies are then analyzed for their relation to real-world dietary and nutritional needs, and the user is given straightforward recommendations.”

Pressed on the questionable nature of that apple juice study, DNA Lifestyle Coach’s founders responded that the “data is not as strong” as the the other studies it pulls from. “But it is a harmless recommendation,” the company said.

When asked whether it was possible that DNA Lifestyle Coach’s claims might have any validity, Topol laughed.

One day, he said, it’s likely we’ll have some genomic insight into what types of diets are better suited for certain people. But, he added, it’s unlikely that we will ever accurately predict the sort of granular details DNA Lifestyle Coach hopes to, like exactly what SPF of sunscreen you should be using on your skin.

“There are limits,” he said.
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