A Window into Your Past…and Your Future

DNA Testing Capabilities Expand Despite FDA Frowns

You can learn a lot about your ancestry by submitting a saliva sample to a DNA testing lab. For less than $100, some labs will trace your specific genetic lineage. They’ll send you a full explanation of your genetic history. You may also be able to learn about genetic markers that could impact your health and affect how long you’ll live.

Clues about our remaining lifespan may be found in our DNA. Specifically, in the length of the protective caps that cover the ends of every strand of DNA. These are called telomeres, and they shrink over time as we age. Telomeres work as a sort of biological hourglass. How much they’ve receded can tell about how much our bodies have aged. Whether we are older or younger than our years. At some point, geneticists may figure out how to slow or even reverse the aging process at the chromosomal level.

In the meantime, a company called Telomere Diagnostics can measure the length of your telomeres.

A process that may provide you with potentially useful information. According to the company, “Telomere length is a biomarker of overall health status… It is an ‘integrator’ of a broad range of current and lifelong factors that impact health, including genetics, diet, fitness, toxins and chronic stress.”

Telomere shrinkage is inevitable. For now. However, you can take steps to slow the aging process taking place within your cells. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, keeping physically fit, and taking antioxidant supplements may help you live longer. And it may make you feel younger than your years, too.

Controversial Compound Hailed
by Some as a Longevity Booster

People with a higher amount of the enzyme telomerase tend to have longer, healthier telomeres. Scientists are studying ways to increase the levels of the enzyme in our bodies to protect or even extend telomeres. A supplement called TA-65 supposedly activates telomerase and prevents telomere shortening. It has been hailed by some as a fountain of youth.

Some users swear by it. And at least one credible study provides support to some TA-65 boasts. But the scientific basis for TA-65 as an anti-aging pill remains thin. There are also concerns over potential side effects, which aren’t yet fully known. In short, TA-65 belongs in the “speculative” category of supplements.

How Astragalus Can Help
You Postpone Death

TA-65 is made from the molecule cycloastragenol. That’s a compound derived from astragalus. Astragalus is an ancient Chinese healing herb.
It’s traditionally used to strengthen body systems. It also enhances immunity. Unlike TA-65, astragalus has a long history of use and scientific research behind it. And it’s far more affordable that TA-65. In studies, astragalus has been shown to:

  • Energize macrophages.
  • Energize T-cells.
  • Reduce blood pressure;
  • Protect against liver damage;
  • Revive the immune systems of cancer patients
  • taking immune-suppressing drugs.

Astragalus may be especially beneficial for cancer patients. The herb is also commonly used in conjunction with Echinacea or goldenseal, which are strong immune boosters. Astragalus is commercially available in tinctures, capsules, and tablets. It may not be a fountain of youth, but astragalus can help you ward off threats from disease.

FDA Bars You from Obtaining
Your Own Genetic Information

DNA tests may help you identify the diseases for which you are most at risk genetically. DNA and telomere testing companies are part of the fledgling field of retail genomics. It’s a field that promises to usher in a new era of personalized medicine. Medicine that is delivered direct to individuals, at low cost.

But federal regulators are trying to put a stop to it. In late 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued an abrupt letter to 23andMe, a leading DNA testing firm. The letter warned the company to cease offering its full slate of genetic analysis services to consumers. The FDA effectively banned citizens from getting information about their own genomes without first going through a doctor.

23andMe continues to offer its DNA kit for ancestry direct to consumers. But they can’t provide any information about specific genetic health traits. That includes diseases to which you may be genetically susceptible. The FDA doesn’t think you can handle that kind of information responsibly.

Private Genetic Health Analysis
is Not Banned Everywhere

Regulators in the United Kingdom apparently think that Brits can handle the truth about their own genes. The UK recently allowed 23andMe to sell its slate of genetic risk data directly to consumers. Through this data Brits can learn about their personal, genetic risk for more than 250 medical conditions. The test even sheds light on 30 potential drug interactions, as well.

Eric Topol, medical author and professor of genomics at Scripps Research Institute, praises 23andMe. They’ve pioneered retail genomics and are delivering cutting-edge analysis at bargain prices (a benefit no longer available to U.S. citizens). He writes, “Just the data on drug-DNA interactions alone represented a distinct bargain, since any one of the 30 assays might cost more than $200 in a hospital lab. Many of these tests are not even commercially available. Even when they are, physicians often don’t bother testing for interactions between a drug and a person’s DNA (which could help a patient avoid side effects or assure efficacy), though considerable data supports the practice.”

Why did FDA move to ban 23andMe’s DNA analysis? The agency said it’s trying to protect people. That people might act rashly on the information they receive without going to a doctor and without fully understanding the genetic analysis or its limitations. FDA bureaucrats were also dismayed at 23andMe for failing to respond to their initial letter for several months. Perhaps they view genetic information as too dangerous to be in the hands of the public.

Genetics is a morally fraught subject. Some areas of inquiry in the field of genetics remain politically taboo. The Human Genome Project did little to quell longstanding moral protestations of genetic science, particularly from the egalitarian left.

James Watson, Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has been rendered an “unperson” (as he himself puts it) because he made the politically incorrect observation that human populations aren’t all equally endowed in intelligence. Watson remarked in a 2007 interview, “I turned against the left wing because they don’t like genetics, because genetics implies that sometimes in life we fail because we have bad genes. They want all failure in life to be due to the evil system.”

Here’s a $5 End-Run Around the FDA’s Ban

Fortunately, the Internet makes it difficult for the government to keep a lid on genetic information. You can still obtain “uninterpreted raw genetic data” from 23andMe. And that means you have options.

You can take the data you receive to a specialist for analysis. Or for a mere $5, you can run it through a program called Promethease (www.promethease.com). The program will produce a report that explains some of the medical information that may be encoded in your DNA. You are still advised to discuss the results of Promethease with a doctor. But if you don’t find anything alarming in your personal genetic report, you may decide to simply breathe a sigh of relief and be thankful.

There are other genetic profiling services that now offer more specialized DNA analysis. For example, the new startup Molecular Testing Labs is “blazing a new path in direct-to-consumer genetics testing by using the tests to tailor personalized diet and fitness programs” (Portland Business Journal, February 4, 2015).

The company charges $299 for a Diet DNA test and $549 for a Fitness DNA analysis. It also offers a Cardiac Drug Interaction Panel for heart patients. You simply swab your cheek, send in your sample, and wait for the results to be sent back to you.

Molecular Testing Lab says its tests don’t require FDA approval because they fall under the category of “laboratory developed tests.” Their lab is regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and is accredited by the College of American Pathologists.

Genomics Investments
Generate Healthy Returns

Genomics is a fast-changing and growing field. Lately, it’s been a profitable place for investors. The PowerShares Dynamic Biotech & Genome (PBE) ETF continues to power ahead.

It’s a little late in the bull market to be chasing the major healthcare and biotechnology stocks. They’ve run up quite a lot. But you may still be able to find bargains in smaller, lesser known companies if you’re well-versed in this niche area.

In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes on the Biotech & Genome ETF and see if it gives us a more attractive entry point (likely following a broad market correction) in the months ahead.