Does your genetic code contain information that can help you lose weight?
It’s a serious question in science, and in business. Now, the makers of Lose It aim to find out. The nine-year-old mobile app—from Boston-based parent company FitNow—was early in the field of using smartphones to log workouts and meals, and track progress toward health goals. Users aren’t guaranteed to shed pounds, of course, but a National Institutes of Health study last year found that the app’s most dedicated users lose weight nearly 73 percent of the time.
Now, the 25-person company is entering new—and more complicated—territory with a service dubbed EmbodyDNA, which aims to provide custom diet and exercise tips based on a user’s genes. The service, which launches today, involves shipping a saliva sample to Lose It’s partner, a company called Helix, for DNA sequencing. (More on this in a minute.)
EmbodyDNA is meant to enhance the main function of the Lose It app. “Tracking calories and being mindful about your eating, that’s a good general-purpose tool for everyone,” says CEO and co-founder Charles Teague. The new sequencing service fits into the company’s broader goal “to make our users smarter, to help them make better choices, [and] to give them the information they need. And one aspect of that is tailoring that information to the individual.”
One of the most popular applications of genetic testing has been researching genealogy via services from companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe. But businesses are now peddling a growing variety of genetic tests directly to consumers, which range from the serious (assessing someone’s risk of certain diseases) to the amusing (recommending wines from a DNA-based analysis of one’s palate).
The bigger theme here is the proliferation of technologies and tools that enable individuals to take a more active role in their health and wellness. But it’s still unclear how useful and reliable some of these genetic tests are, and whether a lot of people will pay for them.
Lose It’s partner, Helix, is among the companies trying to expand the use of genetic testing. Helix is a spinout of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the San Diego-based maker of gene-sequencing machines and related technologies. The company launched two years ago with over $100 million from Illumina and other investors. Today’s EmbodyDNA rollout is one of more than 20 gene-focused products and services being announced by a dozen or so partners of Helix, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a sequencing lab in San Diego.
Helix wants to build a sort of app store for consumer genomics. The idea is that people will get part of their genome sequenced by Helix, which will store the information. Consumers will choose which Helix partners can access the data and what they’ll do with it. For example, you might enlist Vinome to recommend wines based on your tastes, have Sema4 assess your risk of passing certain genetic disorders on to your children, or explore your ancestors’ migration paths through a product from National Geographic.
Part of Helix’s pitch is that once consumers pay for the initial sequencing and their first report, they’ll pay a cheaper fee for future uses of products offered by Helix’s partners.
“Our vision is that this is a platform, a marketplace that over time will grow to hundreds or thousands of products,” says Justin Kao, Helix’s co-founder and senior vice president of business development and partnerships.
That vision got a boost in April when the FDA gave Mountain View, CA-based 23andMe the green light to market genetic tests directly to consumers that assess their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and eight other disorders. One financial analyst predicted the FDA’s decision will open genetic sequencing to more third-party providers, which could help Helix build a bigger marketplace. (The FDA decision marked a turnaround for 23andMe, which in 2013 was ordered by the regulatory agency to stop selling its genetic tests.)
Lose It, for its part, doesn’t anticipate EmbodyDNA will require FDA approval, Teague says. That’s because it will not be making any disease or diagnostic claims, and instead will focus on wellness tips, Kao says. “That has been an area that has not been regulated by the FDA” thus far, he adds.
Here’s how the new service works: Users pay $189.99 (plus shipping) and receive a saliva collection kit in the mail. They spit in a tube and ship the sample to Helix’s lab to sequence the DNA. Helix then shares certain pieces of customers’ genetic information with Lose It that the two companies say are relevant to diet, exercise, and weight loss. Users receive results of the test in six to eight weeks, Lose It says. (The wait is much shorter if the user’s sequence information is already in Helix’s database.)
For now, Lose It’s service will look for 47 genetic variants the companies say are associated with traits ranging from gluten tolerance to a predisposition to having an above-average body mass index (BMI). Lose It intends to turn that genetic data into insights and recommendations delivered via its app that, ideally, will help users lose weight.
For example, a particular genetic variant could signal that a diet high in saturated fats is more likely to result in a higher BMI for that person, Lose It says. If that genetic variant doesn’t show up in the test, Lose It might say the user doesn’t need to focus as much on reducing saturated fats in his or her diet, Teague says.
Lose It isn’t the first to provide this kind of information to people who have their DNA analyzed. 23andMe, for example, provides consumers with information about how their genes might impact their weight, and the potential effects that different diet and exercise choices might have on them because of their genetic makeup.
Teague thinks Lose It’s service will be compelling to consumers because its app can now combine genetic information with behavioral data—meaning the choices users make around food and exercise. The app can help guide users with all of this data, he says—and also help track whether or not the genetic insights ultimately make a difference. If the app recommends limiting saturated fats, it can scour its database of nutritional data to suggest foods to avoid and foods to emphasize in the diet. The user can set a goal for saturated fat consumption, and the app can help monitor progress as he or she logs meals each day. Few companies provide all those capabilities, Teague says.
Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Weight Center, sounds a note of caution with all of this. She’s not aware of any clinical studies that have proven that information gleaned from direct-to-consumer genetic tests has “actually translated to better outcomes” for people trying to lose weight, she says.
She agrees that … Next Page »