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DNAFit Looks to Leverage Athlete Gene Variants to Guide Customer Training, Nutrition


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – As the number of personal genomics companies balloons, one emerging niche market is direct-to-consumer testing for health and sports applications, in which companies attempt to match customer genetic profiles with more personal and precise training methods and nutrition advice.

One such company, London-based DNAFit screens gene variants linked to a body's response to training and nutrition, and uses a computer algorithm to generate a report informing customers how well they are likely to respond to specific exercise and nutrition regimens.

At the core of the test is a panel of 15 genes, identified from scientific literature, that specifically link to an athlete's potential to respond to power or endurance training. The company is currently conducting studies to validate its endurance and power algorithm, as well as other algorithms it has developed and that require testing.

"Most sports coaches will tell you that they can, through trial and error, determine how well someone responds to training," Craig Pickering, head of sports science at DNAFit, told GenomeWeb. DNAFit's tests determine whether a user would respond better to high- or low-intensity resistance training, and they enable DNAFit to provide nutrition advice by identifying how sensitive users are to consuming carbohydrates, alcohol, salt, and saturated fats.

Among the genes analyzed are the ACTN3, which stabilizes the muscle contractile apparatus in fast-twitch muscle fibers, and ADRB2, which plays a pivotal role in the regulation of the cardiac, pulmonary, vascular, endocrine, and central nervous systems. The algorithm places more weight on genes that have a greater effect or have more research supporting them, and less weight on genes that have a reduced effect or have less research supporting them.

While validating the algorithm, DNAFit's scientists put two sets of people through training that either matched or did not match with their genetic profiles. Over eight weeks, they found that people who trained with a match to their genetic profiles showed far better levels of performance than people who trained with a mismatch to their profiles.

"Now we are going through and validating all of our algorithms," Pickering said. "We've completed work for power and endurance and published the results, and we've just finished studies with soccer players, which we expect to publish soon."

The next step for the team is to validate other algorithms it has developed. "We have one for aerobic trainability on which we conducted a pilot study and on which we are seeing good results, so we can take that forward. We also have a recovery-based algorithm and again we are looking to do research on that."

The results of studies on the DNAFit algorithm for power and endurance have been published in Biology of Sport. "Our results indicate that matching the individual's genotype with the appropriate training modality leads to more effective resistance training," wrote the study's authors. "The developed algorithm may be used to guide individualized resistance-training interventions."

As part of algorithm validation, DNAFit conducts studies in which it assembles large groups of elite athletes associated with one specific attribute — sprinters, for example — and compares them with another group of the athletes associated with an opposing attribute — endurance runners in this case. Their tests are then compared with that of a control group consisting of people who are not athletes.

"You identify whether there is one SNP or one gene allele that is more common in one of these groups of people and if it is, that would indicate that the SNP or gene allele is linked to that trait," said Pickering.

Pickering provides ACTN3, which he said is among the most researched of exercise genes, as an example. "We are pretty sure now that the C allele of ACTN3 is associated with power performance," he said. "If you give a group of elderly subjects a 10-week resistance training program, people with the C allele of ACTN3 will generally see greater improvements in strength and people with the TT genotype will see less improvement in strength but greater improvement in muscular endurance," he added.

The DNAFit solution works in two ways. Users can purchase the test and send a buccal swab back to the company so it can test for SNPs. Alternatively, users can send DNAFit their 23andMe data, which the company will integrate into its analysis.  

DNAFit provides a report that is accessible online and gives an in-depth presentation related to fitness and nutrition, including showing the gene variants that they have identified and analyzed to achieve specific results, as well as reporting on a user's fitness or nutrition response. A user, for example, could show a 70 percent power response versus 30 percent endurance response on the fitness side, and show lactose tolerance versus intolerance on the nutrition side.

Andrew Steele, head of product for DNAFit, said that there is a large addressable market worldwide, and he drew parallels with genetic testing and the use of wearable technologies that report on parameters such as heart rate. There are 9.2 million gym users in the UK alone that are customer prospects for the DNAFit solution, he told GenomeWeb.

When the company introduced DNAFit to the market in 2013, there were few similar companies in existence, he said. At last count he was able to identify 39 companies in the market.

"As an industry, there's a big difference in the quality of service offered by these companies, and unfortunately the industry as a whole is largely derided by external scientists and researchers that work in genetics," Pickering said.  

DNAFit is working hard to separate itself from that chorus of skepticism, and in doing so provide market differentiation. "We have really strict criteria in place when it comes to the selection of SNPs and genes. For all of the SNPs and genes we use, we conduct at least three peer reviews based on human tests. While that may sound like a low number, three is the minimum, and we grade these studies for quality to decide whether each study supports the gene. We're overcautious in reporting SNPs and genes … we have to see a clear consensus coming through in our work that links SNPs with performance effects."

Advanced performance testing for athletes is also becoming more popular outside the realm of genetics. In June, Quest Diagnostics announced that its Blueprint for Athletes performance lab test had been made available in seven US states. Quest's solution gives insights into biological factors that may affect performance and overall health. It evaluates levels of blood-based health markers such as vitamin D, creatine kinase, and glucose that influence protein synthesis, energy levels, and wellness. Athletes receive a report detailing what the health markers are, how they relate to performance, and what actions can be taken, from training and recovery to diet and nutrition. Over time, athletes can track results to monitor progress towards improved health and performance while helping to avoid or reduce injury.