Direct to consumer genetic testing company 23andMe is selling a new product with special appeal to the data-obsessed athlete. Wellness reports, sold in a $199 package along with other genetic info including ancestry, takes a look into muscle composition, and alcohol, caffeine, and milk consumption. But while the data the report uncovers is interesting, at this point it’s not exactly revelatory.
Thank or blame that on the FDA and tighter standards in the nascent field of genetic testing. If you were a 23andMe customer between late 2007 and 2013, your spit-based genetic report would’ve told you just about anythings—from whether you had a higher than normal chance of getting Type 1 diabetes to whether you might develop lower back pain, like this TechCrunch writer found out.
But the FDA put the kibosh on those health reports two years ago, citing fears that “false results could lead consumers to undergo unnecessary medical procedures,” the Wall Street Journal writes, and that customers may not “understand the results without the aid of a doctor or a genetic counselor.”
So 23andMe had to revamp the information released and how it is presented, stressing that genes don’t work in isolation; just because you have a gene that’s been linked to certain traits or diseases doesn’t mean you’ll develop those traits or diseases. “Lifestyle, genes, and environment all play a role, and often a very complex and interrelated role, that we as a scientific community are just beginning to understand,” says Brad Kittredge, 23andMe’s VP of Product.
For these new Wellness reports, and any reports added going forward, 23andMe must cite three or more peer-reviewed studies supporting the data you receive. That means the report will include “less controversial areas for which we have established the genetic correlations,” says Thomas Roos, a staff scientist at Stanford’s School of Medicine who specializes in sports genetics and genetic epidemiology.
In other words, the info you’re getting is considered scientifically sound, which certainly is important, “but for the average consumer these are just interesting things to know about yourself that sometimes come up at cocktail parties,” Roos says.
You’ve probably noticed, for example, if you have alcohol flush syndrome, or when your face turns red when you imbibe, which is the only alcohol-related information you’ll get from this test right now. You’ll also find out your propensity for lactose intolerance.
The muscle test is based on a protein called ACTN3, found in fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are associated with greater power and speed than slow-twitch fibers. “What you do with that information as an athlete is frankly, probably nothing,” Roos says. “If you do have a higher density of fast-twitch fibers, that doesn’t mean you won’t be a decent endurance athlete. A lot of other things go into muscle fiber composition besides genetics.”
What you might do with it, however, is boost your mental game. “If your genetics suggest you have fast-twitch muscle fiber, and you’re a sprint or power-based athlete, you could use that to help with your confidence,” Roos says.
Finally, there’s caffeine. This test is a perfect example of why the current Wellness report is a bit boring—but can and likely will become fascinating as genetic research improves.
Right now, the caffeine test will tell you if you’re likely to consume more or less caffeine than other 23andMe customers with similar genetic profiles. Fun info? Maybe. Helpful for athletes? Not really.
But scientists already know about genes associated with caffeine metabolism. Two studies, Roos says, have linked certain genes to fast caffeine metabolism, or when caffeine’s effects will hit you quickly, then resume to baseline faster, and slower caffeine metabolism, or when it’ll take longer to feel its effects, but those effects will last longer. Knowing that information could help athletes better dose caffeine for maximum effect during competition. Fast metabolisers might take caffeine closer to the race start, for example, then dose it more frequently, while slow metabolisers might take it earlier then space the doses out more, Roos says.
Because there aren’t enough studies on genes and caffeine metabolism to meet the more rigorous scientific standards 23andMe now requires for FDA approval, that information isn’t currently included. But it’s likely athletes who already have their genes on file with 23andMe could get more detailed, actionable reports in the future.
And while the concern about personal privacy when turning genetic info over to companies like 23andMe is real, there’s also the chance you’ll help scientists make the next breakthrough health discovery. 23andMe now counts over 1 million users in its database, and 80 percent of them opt in to participate in research. “We use their de-identified genetic data as part of studies,” Kittredge says. “In most cases, they answer questions about personal attributes and preferences they may have and that allows us to do research on a scale and a scope that has never before been possible.”
Users who participate get insights and access to early findings as rewards for their help. It’s a data-geek athlete’s dream come true.