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Biotech companies make gene-based testing more accessible to SA consumers

Supplied image.

Supplied image.

Published Oct 28, 2023


Johannesburg - Have you ever wondered what illnesses may await you in your future? Now you can stop wondering. Medical experts agree that lifestyle genetic testing and screening are the future of medicine.

Children can get tested at an early age, so they can adapt their lifestyle to avoid issues like diabetes and other chronic diseases. Next Biosciences, a leading local biotech company, is expanding its direct-to-consumer (DTC) lifestyle genetic testing offering that will enable South Africans to take personal ownership of their health and, by doing so, reduce their risk of disease.

Founder of Next Biosciences, Kim Hulett, said the PharmaGene tests are evidence-based DNA tests that look at specific genetic markers within multiple areas of health like nutrition, exercise, sleep, environmental exposures, and other lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of lifestyle-related diseases.

“Test results uncover a person’s unique biochemistry, predispositions and interactions with environmental and lifestyle factors to predict inherent susceptibilities that will help to get people started on their longevity health journey by guiding them in making choices that can extend their health span and lead to a healthier and happier life,” she said.

PharmaGene and 3x4 require cheek swabs, while Viome, another biotech company, requires a stool sample. These are then sent to labs for analysis. No longer will doctors have to go through a process of trial and error when it comes to scripting medicine.

Hulett added that PharmaGene will provide tailor made patient prescriptions according to their genes, medication and lifestyle, saving patients’ time and money by bypassing the trial-and-error phase.

Next Biosciences Medical Director, Dr Yvonne Holt, said since human genes remain the same throughout a life, the tests will be once-off and will provide you with insight into your medical care.

“Different from other pharmacogenomic tests currently available, PharmaGene provides access to a live online portal, which a health practitioner can use to adjust a patient's regimen in real time to achieve the lowest risk score possible based on a patient's genes, medication and lifestyle. The portal automatically updates as more medication and pharmacogenomic data becomes available, making this test valid throughout a patient's life. This portal also allows specialists to streamline their regimens to ensure there are no contraindications between a patient's doctors if they are seeing more than one.”

Hulett said the test provides personalised medicine to patients from a holistic perspective.

“It’s not only your genes that affect your medication, but your lifestyle and environment as well. PharmaGene takes your current lifestyle and environment into consideration and analyses how this affects the medication you take. This is especially relevant for people who are on multiple medications and is beneficial for children as well, in that you can establish an optimal dosage based on your child’s genetics while eliminating those that are toxic. The ideal would be for everyone to one day have a pharmacogenomics test done after they are born,” she said.

Holt emphasised that pharmacogenomics tests will not only reduce healthcare costs and save time, but offer a new level of patient centricity.

“Medicine of today is still largely based on a one-size-fits all model, where patients diagnosed with the same condition are often prescribed the same medication and dose. This approach can lead to preventable adverse medicine reactions, reduced efficacy and non-compliance due to intolerance and increased healthcare costs.

“Variations in these genes can cause medication to become toxic in our body or have no efficacy at all depending on what the variation is. PharmaGene finds the best possible regimen for every patient by analysing more than 13 000 medications at different dosages, as well as contraindications between medicines and lifestyle indications, to produce an expansive treatment plan tailored to each patient. The test will substantially reduce the risk of adverse and even fatal reactions to medication,” she added.

US entrepreneur and philanthropist Naveen Jain, who is also the founder and CEO of Viome Life Sciences, said his number one goal is to create a disease-free world wherein personalised, precision medicine plays a key role.

“Being able to provide personalised, precise recommendations to patients through early diagnosis and/or supplements is where modern medicine should be headed. Lifestyle testing should be the first step in everyone’s longevity health journey – providing individuals with insights to lead a healthier life for longer and allowing one to take preventative measures early on. Without personalised testing and being informed, it really is just navigating in the dark,” said Jain.

While most medical aids do not currently cover DTC genetic tests, Dr Holt said it’s starting to play an integral role in holistic healthcare, which providers can no longer ignore.

“Medical aids can take advantage of the data by encouraging members to employ targeted preventive measures. This could potentially reduce the overall healthcare costs for insurers in the long run by preventing or mitigating the impact of certain illnesses. With genetic information, medical aids can tailor treatment plans to each individual's unique genetic make-up. This personalised approach may lead to more effective treatments, reducing trial-and-error in medication and again, lowering healthcare expenses associated with unsuccessful treatments,’’ Dr Holt said.

CEO and founder of DNAlysis, Danny Meyerfeld, said our DNA code reveals everything about us, from the colour of our eyes to our levels of caffeine tolerance.

“Small variations in our DNA code can play a massive role in the functioning of genes within key biological pathways. At DNAlysis, we read and decipher your genetic code, allowing you to use these insights to achieve optimal health outcomes,” he said.

There is a new paradigm in medicine, which is seeing a shift away from the traditionally reactive, one-size-fits-all approach to a more personalised and predictive mode of practice.

Meyerfeld added that DNA testing is a key component of this paradigm shift by motivating behaviour change, helping you to understand your own personal health priorities, and providing the tools required to reduce your disease risk.

The Saturday Star