Danny Dyer discovering he was related to King Edward III was one of the stand-out moments of Who Do You Think You Are last year, but David Nicholson uncovers family secrets every day at LivingDNA. “I remember working with one woman who had been abandoned at two months old,” he says. “Through DNA testing she found her second cousin and could reconstruct her family to identify who her father and later her mother actually were.”
The public’s fascination with ancestry has led to a boom in businesses specialising in DNA. The world’s consumer genetic testing market was worth $70m (£53m) in 2015, and is expected to rise to $340m (£261m) by 2022. It’s expanded beyond the ancestry sector and into beauty, health and fitness, and even dating. Some firms in America even provide DNA testing for pets so dog owners can pinpoint the exact breed makeup of their four-legged friend.
It’s a market largely dominated by large firms, such as AncestryDNA, which recently announced they’d reached four million users on their database (a 25% increase from three months before), and 23andMe, which is part owned by Google. But SME owners are breaking new ground in this field.
Nicholson, launched his Frome-based business Living DNA in 2016. An expert in DNA testing, the parent company DNA Worldwide has been running since 1999, providing reports to courts around the UK. Their latest consumer offering promises to give customers “twice the detail of other ancestry tests”.
Users pay a one-off fee of £120 for a swab kit that arrives and is returned via post. Typically, the results take 8-12 weeks to arrive and come with lifetime access to an online report – this is at odds with larger competitors, many of whom only provide access while you are a paying subscriber. The main difference in the tests, Nicholson says, is more detailed results that are easier for customers to understand.
“We’ve developed algorithms that can map a person’s DNA mix across 80 world regions,” he says. “People tell us they’ve had tests done elsewhere and couldn’t understand the results. They’ve had to download files and compare centiMorgan [a unit for measuring genetic linkage] lengths. We provide something that’s simple and user-friendly.”
He’s not surprised by the rise in interest in DNA and says the relatively low cost of tests today has opened the science up to everyone. “The one question that societies through the ages always ask is what is our purpose: why are we here and how did we get there? Held within our DNA code is the history of humanity.”
Beyond burning questions about mankind’s origins, the popularity of DNA testing has also opened up new possibilities in the beauty and fitness sectors, particularly when it comes to the personalisation of products.
“Our research shows that skin ageing is 60% influenced by your genes and 40% by your lifestyle,” says Dr Martin Stow, Group CEO of GENEU, which launched in 2014. “The DNA is tested at our London laboratory and we analyse genes associated with antioxidant protection and collagen breakdown, which determine the rate at which skin ages.
“After the test and a consultation, we prescribe personalised GENEU skincare serums to optimise and future-proof the appearance of the customer’s skin.”
Skincare is a lucrative niche, with the UK market worth an estimated £465m in 2015. GENEU’s starter kits range from £200 to £1,800, while the at-home DNA sample kits costs £89, plus any prescribed serums. Customers can also provide a DNA sample for analysis in store – the brand has a flagship store off London’s New Bond Street and a pop-up in Selfridges on Oxford Street. Stow hopes to eventually be able to provide results straight away.
“Genetic testing is starting to impact the healthcare space in personalised medicine, but its real potential lies in consumers being able to take a simple on-the-spot test so they can make more informed product choices,” Stow says.
If our genes reveal how fast our skin is going to age, it stands to reason that they can also tell us how to exercise. That’s according to Andrew Steele, from DNAFit. He is a recently retired Olympic athlete who competed at the Beijing Olympic Games (his relay team finished fourth in the final but were upgraded to bronze after the Russian team was retrospectively disqualified for a doping violation). Athletes Greg Rutherford and Jenny Meadows are also said to be fans of the approach.
DNAFit was founded by South African life sciences entrepreneur Avi Lasarow in 2013. Previously, he was the owner of Trimega Laboratories, one of the world’s first businesses to commercialise hair testing for alcohol and drug abuse. DNAFit’s genetic test, which is available from £99, uses a mouth swab sample to screen for gene variants. These are then evaluated to devise a personalised training plan.
“What led me to meet Avi and join DNAFit were my own experiences of using DNA to better understand what exercise and diet worked best for me,” Steele, DNAFit’s head of product, says. ‘The tests tell people which foods they need and are intolerant to [and] also show what exercises best suit their body.
“DNAFit was created to take this level of genetic data out of the lab and … [was the first] to really help people understand their genetic data in relation to their exercise or nutrition response. We created the market for what we do.”
But do these tests work? DNAFit commissioned an independent study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire, did find an improvement among those who trained to their genetic strengths versus those on unmatched training programmes. But some scientists, such as Dr Helen Wallace, are sceptical of the commercialisation of DNA testing. Wallace is the director of Gene Watch UK, a not-for-profit organisation that monitors developments in genetic technologies.
“Sciona began selling [gene tests directly to customers] in the Body Shop in 2001, with dietary advice,” she says. “But those tests were exposed as misleading in 2002.
“As well as having a viable business model, the DNA-test-based product and service providers of the future will have to comply with regulations and maintain consumer trust. Consumers should be aware of the limitations of the tests and know that new regulations to check companies’ health claims are not yet in force.”
Those banking on DNA testing to find their perfect mate may be disappointed. “Scientists have not been able to confirm any links between genes and behaviours or personality types, for example, so [something like] genetic matchmaking would have no scientific basis,” Wallace adds.
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