All in the genes?

I just got my results back from a genetic test. About a month ago a company called FutureMed reached out to me and asked if I’d be keen on having their test (a resounding yes), and one very simple and needle-less test later, I received an email with my results.

Here’s how it works: A rep from FutureMed will come to you. Don’t what I did and ask him to come to your work, because then you’ll have to suffer the excruciating indignity of having a purple latex be-gloved gentlemen do a slow face massage to get your salivary glands going before doing a buccal (cheek) swab at your desk, all this while the tech team and web team sitting on an adjacent table try not to stare. (My fault, not his.) At home it is, I imagine, a quick and not-mortifying procedure. Two cheek swabs on either side and voila, done. Two weeks later you’ll receive an email with your results.

I did the Wellness panel, which doesn’t assess for disease risk, but instead looks at your body’s genetic predispositions around eating, nutrition, and fitness. Results are split across sections that span eating habits, weight management, food intolerances, addictions, injury risk, aerobic/anaerobic capacity, and power and endurance training.

If you’re already fairly in-tune with your body this data might help you take your health to the next level. I found out, for example, that my genes predispose me to perform well when it comes to endurance workouts, and that too much focus on strength and weight training might cause me to build subcutaneous fat. I also found out that I am, in fact, likely to be gluten intolerant, but also (confusingly) that I’m not lactose intolerant (I’ll loop back to this in a minute). A lot of what I learned only qualified things I’d suspected: no tendency toward addictions, a definite tendency toward weight regain (boo hiss), and that my slow-twitch muscles work better than my fast-twitch ones. I already knew that I take ages to warm up and that I actually hit my stride about 30 minutes into a workout, when some people are starting to flag, and that gluten really doesn’t make me feel great. The lactose thing threw me for a bit of a loop though, because I wasn’t sure why, if I’m not intolerant, ice cream and milk products make me bloat like a balloon. Apparently, the doctor from FutureMed explained to me, it might mean that I’m having an immune reaction to dairy, and most people (me included) don’t know that there is a difference between the two issues.

Two cheek swabs on either side and voila, done.

All of this was fun and interesting to have confirmed though. It is one thing to have a sense of your body and what it likes and doesn’t like, but quite another to have it validated. Think of it as recreational genetics. The wellness panel that I had isn’t the same as the disease-specific genetic testing that might reveal startling and unsettling genetic tendencies, like the BRCA variations that increase breast cancer risk, or others that point toward a predisposition for Alzheimer’s. Would I even want to know, if I couldn’t change a thing about the prediction? I don’t know.

But, what is a gene test?

More to the point, how does it differ from regular bloodwork and lab tests? Lab work is blood-based, and actually your blood changes by the hour. When you eat, sleep, the time of day… these all contribute to an in-flux state. Your genes are DNA instructions you inherit from your parents and they are unique to you. DNA is the code our bodies use to make genes, and genes are, in a sense, instructions for our bodies. Gene testing looks for changes, mutations or variants that can either cause disease or put you at risk for developing a disease. DNA markers are impactful because it shows what genes you test positive for, but just because your genes say something doesn’t mean it is destined to be that way. That’s where blood work and regular lab tests come in, for blood markers which you can also change through diet and lifestyle.

What this test isn’t is an ancestry test (these exist, this just isn’t one of them). Instead, they’re looking at the genes specific to your query. In my case, the wellness test looked at the genes linked to diet and nutritional supplementation as well as response to exercise, injury risk etc. You could also, for instance, have a pharmacogenomics test which tells you drugs and drug doses that are likely to work best for you, combining pharmacology with genomics in a way that allows doctors to prescribe ones that are likely to work best for you.

Tricky MTHFR

Most interesting to me though was the MTHFR mutation, which I apparently have (as do 30-50% of the population). I’m not being rude, MTHFR is an abbreviation methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, and it is the thing that changes folic acid from one form to another form; it helps to change one amino acid building block, homocysteine, into another, methionine. Your body uses methionine to make proteins and other important compounds so this reaction is involved in lots of bodily processes, including DNA repair. Methylation is key to many processes in your body; it happens about a billion times every second, so if methylation isn't functioning well, neither are you. As a result, homocysteine doesn’t get recycled efficiently and builds up in the blood. It’s this buildup of homocysteine, doctors say, that can cause the problems associated with this gene mutation, such as blood clots, high blood pressure, and strokes.

Knowing you have the mutation is one thing, but the problem isn’t the MTHFR, it’s the amount of homocysteine in your blood. So the next step in knowing this is to then measure the level of homocysteine in your blood, and it’s only if it’s elevated could you then start to supplement vitamins like B6, B12 and folate, or folic acid. You could actually just go ahead and have that test directly, but you’re unlikely to be thinking about it at all unless it is flagged to you in some way, like this test did for me.

Would I recommend it?

Actually, yes. I really enjoyed getting all this gene-health information, but it’s also important to point out that while your genes might indicate predispositions to various conditions, your lifestyle choices still have a mammoth role to play. The old view positioned genetics as an immutable force: ‘a family history of diabetes’, or high blood sugar, or stroke… that it was only a matter of time before the same fate befell you. Today, the field of epigenetics—aka the environmental factors that affect your DNA expression—confirms that even those ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genes are switched on and off by the world around us and the choices we make every day. Knowing is great, and a fantastic springboard to then working in the best possible way with your body to bolster weaknesses and help your body thrive.

FutureMed’s wellness panels start at Rs 5,750, and go up to Rs 10,000 for the triple combination, of weight, nutrition, and fitness. The autoimmune panel that tests for 14 diseases is Rs 15,000. For more information on disease, oncology, cardiology panels as well as personal gene sequencing, please contact FutureMed by calling them at +91-11-40106833/44, or via their website.