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Ever bought a moisturiser that beauty editors raved about, only to find that it brought you out in spots? Or tried the diet recommended by a friend and failed to lose a single pound? The problem is that diet, exercise and skincare are not “one size fits all”. Instead, it is the specific version – or mutation – of our genes that dictates everything from eye colour to how easily we put on weight.
But what if it were possible to identify these genetic differences and create a bespoke treatment tailored to work in harmony with an individual’s unique genetic code? According to a number of new biotech companies, this is no longer just a futuristic dream but a service that is available right now. And it is an idea that is as controversial as you might expect.
At the end of 2012, the Organic Pharmacy in London announced plans to team up with a group called GeneOnyx to offer what it calls the world’s first in-store DNA anti-ageing test to help match customers’ skincare to their genetics. Elsewhere, companies such as XRGenomics, in the English Midlands, say they can use DNA profiles to create a personalised fitness regime or, in the case of My Gene Diet, a bespoke diet.
The growth in such services is due to advances in technology that have made it quicker and cheaper to analyse the human genome. In 2010, researchers at Stanford University in the US retrospectively genetically tested participants from an earlier study that compared different forms of diet. They discovered that those who had been on the “right” diet for their genetic variations lost on average 5.2 per cent of their body weight, while those on the “wrong” diet lost just 2.3 per cent. So, what does this research mean for other beauty treatments?
“Every cell in your body contains the same genetic information,” says Chris Toumazou, a professor of biomedical engineering at London’s Imperial College and founder of GeneOnyx. “Using a cotton bud to swab the inside of your cheeks, we can get a sample of this genetic information to analyse.” According to GeneOnyx, analysis can reveal whether your body has a propensity to hang on to collagen – the protein that keeps skin looking plump and youthful – or to break it down. In theory, this is valuable information (and at £295 a test, it should be).
However, Dr Ewan Birney, who played a key role in the sequencing of the human genome in 2000 and is now joint associate director at the UK-based European Bioinformatics Institute, believes that such tests are based on questionable science. “It’s very difficult to separate the information that we can get from genes from environmental factors,” he says.
Dr Birney believes lifestyle companies are making promises they simply cannot deliver. “Even in medicine, where genetics testing is starting to be used to see how certain people metabolise certain drugs, it’s used in conjunction with existing methods,” he says. “We’re just not at the point where we can simply look at someone’s DNA and accurately predict what drug dosage they require.”