Genetic fingerprinting has been used for a long time to establish a person’s parentage, but now laboratories are using the technique to predict people’s health.
Genes are units of DNA, a compound found in every body cell and passed down through generations. The genes carry a set of instructions needed for living organisms to survive and reproduce.
The genetic tests offered by the laboratories look for gene mutations that can predict the likelihood of diseases like breast cancer and hypertension. As part of the service, genetic counsellors then suggest dietary and lifestyle changes to lower the risks. While some doctors said this could be an excellent disease prevention strategy, others said it could lead to unnecessary worries about the future.
Depending on the number of diseases one wants to get tested for, package prices range from Rs 12,000 to Rs1 lakh. People receive a kit at home and can send samples of their saliva to the laboratory for the test. For instance, Mapmygenome, a Hyderabad-based start-up, provides a test report and a list of dietary and lifestyle recommendations suited for the person’s genetic profile for Rs 30,000. “A simple DNA test can help people take preventive actions before the onset of the disease,” said Anu Acharya, CEO, Mapmygenome.
Vedant Thakkar, 38, a Chembur resident, decided to do the test after seeing an advertisement on a social networking site. Thakkar found he has an elevated risk for developing diabetes and age-related macular degeneration, a condition that can lead to blurred or complete loss of vision. The results surprised Thakkar. “I live a healthy lifestyle. I exercise every morning, eat healthy food, so I didn’t have a reason to believe that I would be at a high risk for any lifestyle diseases,” he said.
According to Pooja Lodaya, Thakkar’s genetic counselor, his DNA profile showed his risk of developing diabetes is 1.36 times higher than the average population. For macular degeneration, it is 1.83 times higher. “Any number above 1.3 is considered to be significantly high,” said Lodaya.
Companies said depending on a client’s family history and lifestyle habits, they are given a list of diseases that they should get themselves tested for. Acharya said instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, they offer customised dietary and lifestyle plans. “Everyone has different DNA and varied lifestyle choices,” said Acharya, who added the test reports are explained to clients by counselors who translate technical data into easily understandable terms.
While most of the tests concentrate on disease prevention, Chennai-based Xcode Life Sciences offers packages for people who want to lose weight and follow a fitness regime suiting their genes. Mapmygenome offers a ‘slim gene’ and ‘sugar gene’ test for people who have family history of diabetes and obesity.
Gautam Taldar, 39, a resident of Andheri, was recommended the genetic test by a friend. While Taldar has no health-related issues, he wanted to lose weight. “My DNA report suggested I am caffeine sensitive, meaning that my body metabolises caffeine very slowly, leading to higher risks for blood pressure and heart ailments,” said Taldar, who added he lost a few kilograms after following the diet suggested by his genetic counselor two months ago.
Janani Thiru, Taldar’s counselor, said his DNA report suggested he is carbohydrate sensitive, making it difficult for him to lose weight. “We also asked him to reduce his intake of rice and chappatis and instead have more protein-rich food like chicken and fish,” said Thiru.
Thakkar was advised to consume less fibre-rich foods to reduce his diabetes risk. “For his elevated risk for age-related macular degeneration, we asked him to increase intake of zinc-rich foods such as spinach and kale,” said his genetic counselor Lodaya.
Companies said the packages were becoming popular. Samarth Jain, CEO, Positive Bioscience, a Mumbai-based company where Thakkar got his DNA tested said, “Since we started in 2014, we have seen a 550% increase in the number of people getting tested.”
While Mumbai has seen a proliferation of laboratories offering testing, the service is not yet popular in Delhi. “A handful of those that offer actually send samples abroad for testing, which further pushes up the cost of these expensive tests,” said Dr Navin Dang, director of Dang’s Medical Diagnostic Centre in Delhi.
Dang said he has been approached by foreign laboratories that sell technology for genetic tests. “I am still contemplating it because I am not sure how many people would be fine with the idea of knowing in advance if they have a propensity towards cancer.”
Many doctors are also sceptical about the tests. According to Dr Altaf Patel, director of medicine at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, the tests are premature and too expensive to be of any benefit. “The tests do not guarantee the disease will set in, then why spend so much money?” said Patel. “While one can change their lifestyle, one certainly can’t change their DNA. A test of this kind would just lead to unnecessary worries.”
Acharya said clients are given the test results only after medical counseling so that they don’t panic unnecessarily.
Other experts said the tests are yet to be endorsed by health agencies. “Genetic tests are still evolving and in Indian setting they have limited utility and also haven’t been validated yet,” says Dr Vinod Raina, former head of medical oncology department, AIIMS, Delhi.
Dr Raina, who is presently with Fortis Memorial Research Institute, said, “Prescribing unnecessary tests isn’t a healthy trend and mainly happens because there are companies that are trying to push for them as these are expensive.”
Dr Shreepal Jain, consultant cardiologist at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai, said, “While these tests have become popular here and internationally, these tests are too premature to be included in the clinical management of conditions.”
(Inputs from Rhythma Kaul, New Delhi)