The founder of DNAFit on how understanding our genetic makeup can help us get healthy

Katherine Denham
Director of PrimerDesign Ltd Jim Wicks p
One of many ethical debates revolves around DNA data being used by insurers, potentially paving the way for businesses to discriminate (Source: Getty)

We can see physical traces of our genetics in our parents, but for the most part, our DNA is a mystery that many of us can never truly comprehend.

But what if we could understand some of the unique information captured in our DNA, so that we could use it like a map, helping us navigate in a certain direction?

It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s quickly becoming a mainstream reality as more companies look to give people meaning to their genetic makeup. One such business is DNAFit, which takes a fitness slant on DNA-testing by determining how people’s genes respond to different types of food and exercise.

We all know that there is no magic formula to help you get fit – it takes discipline, patience, and the right routine. And when it comes to the latter, finding the right diet or training programme is often a matter of trial and error.

Even professional athletes spend years trying to understand their bodies – experimenting with training regimes and finding out which small differences give them big gains.

Part of DNAFit’s aim is to make this process more efficient, determining whether power or endurance exercise will give optimum results. And when it comes to diet, the DNA test looks at the body’s sensitivity to things like fats and carbs, so that you can choose a diet that will have the best outcome.

“Why would you go through the ordeal of trial and error if you know you don’t have to?” says DNAFit’s founder, Avi Lasarow.

The power of endurance

Professional athletes have had access to DNA testing for years, but it’s now entering the mass market – purely because costs have come down so much that “normal” folk can afford it.

South Africa-born Lasarow – who commercialised the first home-testing kit to determine alcohol dependency – tells me that 15 years ago, full genome sequencing used to cost tens of thousands of pounds, but it can now be done for less than £1,000. “Because the cost has decreased so much, the research possibilities are accelerating; companies like us can do research at a fraction of the cost, so it benefits everyone.”

The price of a DNAFit test starts at £99, and it works like this: you order a home-testing kit, take a swab of saliva, and send it to the company’s lab. In 10 working days, DNAFit sends you a report mapping out things like gluten and lactose tolerance, and your nutrient and vitamin needs.

Included in the price of the test is a phone call with a “coach”, who helps you to understand your report, and gives you guidance on how to reach your fitness goals.

Body blueprint

DNAFit, which launched in 2013, doesn’t claim to work miracles. Instead it tackles the tricky part of healthy living: incentivising people to change their behaviour.

“By adjusting little things, you can make some massive changes to your entire life,” says the former Citibank employee. For example, if people know how quickly their bodies metabolise caffeine, and the impact that this can have on their hearts, this provides a guide to how much coffee is healthy to drink every day.

“If people understand the reasons why they’ve been given advice, they are much more likely to adhere to it because it’s based on their blueprint.”

Lean genes

Lack of repeat custom is one of the glaring issues when it comes to DNA testing as a business proposition. When I ask Lasarow about this, he says that the company aims to keep people engaged in their health.

“DNA testing is the start of their health journey,” he says. “A lot of companies are doing similar things with DNA tests, but one of the key differences with us is we offer our clients a consultation with a sport scientist or a dietician.”

And commercially-minded Lasarow, who talks so rapidly that I can barely keep up, stresses that the firm offers an all-round package, which includes 100-day meal and exercise plans. It also offers something called Snapshots, which is a home blood-test that looks at things like vitamin and cholesterol levels, and is soon to launch a product that determines how the body responds to sleep and stress.

But Lasarow’s ambitions go beyond that, because he hopes that – in the long run – his firm can help prevent chronic disease like diabetes.

With the health minister recently announcing plans to sequence 5m genomes in five years in order to counteract illnesses like cancer, it just goes to show that we’re really at the beginning of this science story.

Testing times

With all that said, increasing use of DNA testing in our lives is both exciting and terrifying all at once.

One of many ethical debates revolves around DNA data being used by insurers, potentially paving the way for businesses to discriminate (for example, there are worries that a life insurer could look at your ancestry DNA to assess the risk of you getting certain diseases).

“When people talk about genetics and insurance, they get really scared about what businesses can do with their data,” says Lasarow. “But actually, in the UK, there is legal protection for how insurers use this information.”

The chief executive stresses that insurers aren’t looking to change their underwriting. Instead, he says it’s about using DNA to have a better conversation with customers. “All our data shows us that when customers understand their health, they start taking ownership.”

What he means is that this information can give consumers a better idea of how to manage their health, so they can take action to prevent diseases which they might be predisposed to.

This in turn might impact their decision about health insurance.

Work out

DNAFit was acquired by Alibaba-backed Prenetics in April this year. And in its short five-year history, the company has partnered with big names like LinkedIn, Disney, TalkTalk, Telegraph, and Puma, which are all trying to encourage their employees to proactively manage their own health.

But DNA testing isn’t just revolutionising the workplace – it’s changing the way we train at the gym. Lasarow tells me that the company currently works with personal trainers, of which 2,000 are now DNA-testing accredited.

Maybe we’ll get to a point where all personal trainers will look at your DNA test to decipher what training regime will work best for you.

And perhaps the fight to get fit just got easier.