In June this year, a video titled The DNA Journey went viral. In it, 67 people from all over the world took a closer look at their ancestry. After a quick spit into a jar, their DNA was sent away and the participants were asked to return two weeks later. Many of the results were, to say the least, surprising. Those who expressed a strong sense of nationalism and felt a tie to their countries, and equally a dislike for other nationalities, often found they had few genetic ties to their home country – and in some instances, the nationalities they despised were found to be a part of their own DNA.
DNA kits, such as the ones used in this experiment, are not limited to peeking into your ancestral past. They can be used to identify whether you are predisposed to certain diseases, or determine the best exercise and nutrition for your body and metabolism. All this from a simple DNA test that can be done at home.
“These tests are part of predictive medicine, and identify risk factors for future conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, obesity and arthritis,” says Dr Nasim Ashraf, medical director at the DNA Center for Integrative Medicine, Wellness and Bio-Aesthetics in Dubai.
While we cannot change the genes that we have inherited, we can modify the “expression” of that gene. “Genes can be turned on or turned off – this is the science of epigenetics. The lifestyle of an individual can modify the genetic effect to avoid disease development. While genes may be the gun, the trigger is down to environment and lifestyle,” he adds
These revelations are the result of the Human Genome Project in 2003. The project, first articulated in 1988 by the United States National Academy of Sciences, allowed medical professionals to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being. “Today, commercially available DNA tests have become an important tool in medicine,” adds Ashraf.
With any medical test, there is always the question of exactness. Ashraf, however, is insistent that accuracy isn’t an issue. “These tests are accurate and standardised – although only specialised labs can do them. The DNA test is mostly done in saliva, so it is easy for the patient to give a specimen.”
There are a number of DNA kits available, including the 23andMe test from America, there are several centres in the UAE that offer these services. The Hundred Wellness Center in Dubai offers testing for weight management, improving overall health and maximising athletic performance. There’s even an option specifically to test for the likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Ashraf’s clinic offers testing for sleep apnoea and chronic gastrointestinal disorders, body-fat reduction, injury management, and allergy and autoimmune disorders, among others.
DNA testing is growing in popularity in the UAE. Genetic testing for obesity and diabetes are the two most popular requests from Ashraf’s Emirati patients, not surprising given that almost 20 per cent of the UAE population is currently living with diabetes and, according to a 2013 study, 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women are obese.
At Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences in Dubai, customer-service manager Randa Mourad says the three most popular tests are the DNA Ancestry Test; the Fitness Diet Pro Test, which determines the optimal food plan and exercises for each person; and the Comprehensive Cancer Panel. The last, Mourad says, tests 122 genes directly related to the 15 most common types of cancer, including pancreatic, gastric, breast, ovarian and thyroid, and advises clients about their risk of developing them.
While DNA testing can provide life-altering information, the tests pose their fair share of negative outcomes. For starters, there’s the issue of privacy of your genetic information. Companies such as 23andMe retain vast amounts of personal data, which could be used to sell you products and services. There’s also the question of whether pharmaceutical companies would be able to get their hands on your data for financial gain. So, it’s wise to ask about the security of your data and the practices of the company doing the test.
There’s also the issue of the psychological impact on tests that reveal genetic mutations, but don’t offer a follow-up appointment or interpretation of the results. While places such as the Hundred Wellness Center offer the service of sitting down with the client to explain the results, many of the mail-in DNA testing kits do not. Not having the results explained by a professional can cause anxiety for those who have tested positive for certain mutations – testing positive doesn’t mean the person will definitely develop the disease. On the other hand, a false sense of security is also a potential problem, more specifically for those who receive a result that says they are not at risk of developing a disease.
With the ability to detect and potentially prevent diseases, injuries and other health issues, one can’t help but wonder how this will affect the medical industry. Both Ashraf and Mourad are in agreement that these kinds of tests will revolutionise the medical field.
“The number of clients is increasing as DNA technology directs attention to preventive plans, as opposed to therapeutic actions. Now we can know the risk a patient might have of suffering from most diseases in the future, and help them prevent this,” says Mourad.
“Also, nutraceuticals [products derived from food sources with extra health benefits] and pharmaceuticals are being developed to offer ‘gene therapy’ as a cure for these conditions,” says Ashraf, adding: “Similarly in the fitness world, modifying gene expression will not only result in reducing injuries and disability, but also enhancing performance.”