How a simple home DNA test unravelled the genetic code that could help prolong my life

Nick Webster of 'The National' finds out how his unique genetic profile offers crucial insights into potential health hurdles to come

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Genomics and DNA testing have been hailed as a window into our medical future that could help us live longer, healthier lives.

The first such consumer test available in Dubai, for Dh999, has been trialled to find out exactly what a spit sample can reveal, and what steps should be taken as a result.

Three weeks after a saliva sample was collected by Emirates Post from my home and processed at Dante Labs' $6 million laboratory in Dubai Silicon Oasis, I received a call from the company that my unique genetic profile was ready.

I was invited to meet Alexandra Fonzi, a genomic and molecular biotechnologist at Dante Labs, to discuss my test results.

A little apprehensive about what revelations may be revealed about how my life may end, I was also eager to understand more about my genetics and why my body reacts in certain ways to exercise and diet.

Genetic screening can answer questions such as how some people put on weight, yet others who eat similar foods do not, and why some healthy people get cancer — while other sedentary cigarette smokers live well into old age.

My specific DNA report had a number of different colour codes to indicate analysis.

Green icons showed no area of concern, while yellow markers showed genes that could help in fitness and lifestyle.

Orange alert prompts call for action

An orange flag in my report identified a requirement for action, and a predisposition towards certain illnesses and diseases because of my specific genes.

A blood pressure alert was issued to suggest I was potentially at risk of a heart attack or stroke without changes to my diet, despite regularly exercising, because of the genes I carried.

“You can reduce salt or do more outdoor activities like running to help reduce blood pressure,” said Ms Fonzi, who provides a one-to-one genetic consultation once results are available.

“This information can be passed on to a personal trainer and dietitian to help them develop a personalised plan based on this genetic information.”

Isometric exercises were recommended as the test showed I had a genetically poor response to muscle building, but I was physiologically suited to high-intensity sports and endurance events.

“Without dietary changes, you may experience problems later in life, with high blood pressure you can have issues when you fly for example,” said Ms Fonzi.

“If you notify a doctor, they can help with medication to reduce blood pressure.”

Raising health alarm early

Chief executive Andrea Riposati shows the sequencer machine at Dante Labs, Dubai Silicon Oasis. Pawan Singh / The National

The report is split into two areas, a fitness report showed what injuries I may be predisposed to — in my case tennis elbow and lower back problems, as well as metabolism and genetic markers for disease.

A second report focused on nutrition and revealed what foods could trigger inflammation or digestive problems.

“Glucose intolerance in metabolism is connected to diet, so there is a predisposition that should be addressed by altering your diet to avoid the chances of diabetes in the future,” Ms Fonzi said.

“If we have a high level of oxidative stress, as in your case, you can age earlier and your body will respond differently to someone who does not react to this kind of inflammatory process.”

A Mediterranean-style diet, with whole grains, low-fat dairy products, more vegetables, fruits and fish oils was recommended as the test showed I had a slow lipid metabolism and glucose intolerance.

It meant without regular exercise, I was more likely to put on weight and potentially be at risk of diabetes, while impaired glucose tolerance is a common risk factor for ischaemic heart disease.

“Some genetic traits revealed in the report can help you, with a good response to working out to help you achieve a high level in sport, but you also have a propensity to put on weight if you ceased to exercise,” Ms Fonzi said.

I was also told I was more likely to develop certain injuries, such as shoulder injuries, muscle cramps and arthritis later in life, because of my specific genetic profile.

Cramps could be countered by taking drinks with added sodium and potassium, particularly in the heat, while maintaining a healthy weight could avoid stress on joints in older age, I was told.

Lab technicians working in the Dante Labs at Silicon Oasis in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

More of a worry was the presence of a specific gene that made me more predisposed to some cancers and cardiovascular disease.

“As you have a high disposition to oxidative stress and carry the A allele gene, if you were a smoker you would be at greater risk of cancer and other cardiovascular disease,” said Ms Fonzi.

“The way your body absorbs HDL cholesterol and fats is also making you at risk of high cholesterol, which is also a hereditary condition in this case as you have an active life.

“It is something that needs to be monitored with regular blood analysis.

“This is a scientific test to you and will give you information as to how you can make your life better in the future by knowing what food you need to avoid, or what nutrition you need to take.”

How genetic testing can transform healthcare

Genetic testing and profiling of patients to predict future care requirements will become a key component of the healthcare strategy in Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere in the GCC.

Thanks to the latest artificial intelligence, G42 Healthcare in Masdar City is one of the leaders in the region, in this kind of medical technology.

At the company’s Biogenix Labs, diagnostic tests or biomarkers help assess high-risk patients and aid in the early detection of diseases, their prognosis, therapy selection, response to treatment, and chances of recurrence.

Thousands of genome sequencing procedures carried out weekly can unlock the possibilities for preventive and precision therapies to transform the UAE healthcare landscape, enabling it to transition from 'sick care' to health care.

G42 Healthcare aims to use the technology to provide insights and facilitate early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, rare and metabolic diseases and other genetic conditions.

“As part of our efforts to support the health of future generations and provide better healthcare every day, Biogenix Labs is expanding its clinical genetics offering in the region and reinforcing its reputation as the regional testing provider of choice,” said Dr Fahed Al Marzooqi, chief operating officer of G42 Healthcare.

“We will soon be expanding this offering to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC region as well.”

Updated: August 14, 2022, 4:54 AM
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL