By Kevin Davies
April 15, 2005 | For about the cost of an iPod, a number of fledgling nutritional genomics companies are offering a routine medical test that leads to personal dietary recommendations based on information gleaned from your DNA profile.
One such test is the Cellf DNA evaluation kit, offered by a nutritional genomics company called Sciona, which recently moved its headquarters from the United Kingdom to Boulder, Colo. The test consists of two parts: a lifestyle questionnaire, and a DNA kit, a standard non-invasive method for collecting DNA that was devised in the late 1980s by my Ph.D. supervisor, Bob Williamson.
Donating DNA -- a quick twirl of a sterile cotton swab inside my mouth that was then popped into the appropriate tube -- was easy. Completing the exhaustive questionnaire was rather more challenging. When I received the results a few weeks later, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. The report soberly recommended that I should cut back on alcohol and caffeine, eat more cruciferous vegetables, and exercise more. "Brilliant, I've known that for years!"
But the genetic analysis results were definitely intriguing. Sciona determined the genotypes of about 20 genes, looking specifically for DNA variations known to be associated with different enzyme activities and medical conditions. Examples include the genes for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (heart disease), vitamin D receptor (bone density and diabetes), tumor necrosis factor (inflammation), and angiotensin-converting enzyme (blood pressure).
Most, if not all, of the specific dietary recommendations, such as to increase intake of folate or omega-3 fatty acids, would be rudimentary advice from any general physician. But in a few instances, specific genotype information did engender more personalized dietary advice. Just how useful is this personalized prescription? A few vitamin and antioxidant supplements probably wonât do anyone any harm, but will they actually do a body good? As Newsweek said in a recent cover story, "Some people will be advised to eat broccoli, while others will be told to eat ... even more broccoli."
Sciona has impressed some notable early backers, including BASF, Burrill & Co., and BioVentures. The company says it has sold about 10,000 tests in the past two years in the United States and Europe, and is currently developing genetic tests for skin care and sports performance. If this sounds far-fetched, think again. The Sea Eagles rugby team in Sydney, Australia, has begun genotyping its players for 11 exercise-related genes, customizing individual training regimens based on genotypic data for oxygen consumption, muscle development and metabolism.
As genetic science and genotyping technology march on, there will be rising demand for personalized medical information, even if many consumers view it as just another trendy health fad. Just last month, published reports tied a gene variant to elevated risk of age-related macular degeneration, a timely reminder of the potential power of genomic medicine. Watching from the sidelines with great interest are companies such as Solexa, which is pioneering novel genotyping technologies. Simon Bennett, head of business development, says, "Ultimately, of course, we want to move toward personalized medicine for entire populations -- for example, every newborn infant -- notwithstanding the social and ethical considerations."
The nonprofit Personalized Medicine Coalition, which was founded in 2003 and includes big pharmas (AstraZeneca, Pfizer), biotechs (Amgen, Genentech, and Genzyme), academic institutions, BIO, and the FDA among its members, will try to smooth that path. Certainly a good place to start would be remedying the current lack of federal legislation ensuring the privacy of genetic data. In February, the Senate passed the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act 98-0. The fate of the bill now rests with the House of Representatives.
Whether the Cellf test becomes a runaway commercial success or a faltering step en route to personalized medicine remains to be seen. For now, consumers might be best advised to heed the sanguine advice offered by another startup company, NutraGenomic s: "Eat less, exercise more, and choose your grandparents wisely."