Everyone wants a peek under the hood. Do our genes contribute to weight gain or affect what we eat? What impact do they have on our skin or our sporting ability? Imagene Labs is hoping to answer some of those questions. The local start-up is among a handful of companies offering tests for genetic markers associated with weight gain, metabolism, dry skin and other wellness-related traits.

“The area of gene testing has advanced in the last couple of years [such] that there are studies now to show that nutritional and fitness genomics are becoming more recognised in the mainstream health field. If we can customise your food and exercise based on your DNA, you will be much healthier,” says Dr Wong Mun Yew, founder of Imagene and a physician by training.

Genetic testing has been used in other areas, including assessing a person’s risk for diseases such as breast cancer and diabetes. It is also used to personalise medications. But new studies are drawing links between genes and wellness. Mutations in our genes might determine how fast we can heal from a muscle injury or how we respond to different exercises, some experts say. Variants in our genes also indicate how well we metabolise nutrients. For instance, some people absorb less iron; so, a change in diet is likely to benefit them.

Imagene tests up to 40 traits with its three tests, broadly categorised under fitness, nutrition and skincare. Users order a test online and Imagene sends them a saliva sample kit. Within two weeks of sending back the sample, a report card will arrive by email. But Imagene’s services do not stop there. “With many of the [gene] tests offered today, many do not tell you what to do after except to eat well and sleep well. We want to change that,” Wong says. “In Asia, we see a rising demand for personalised care as the middle class becomes more affluent.”

The test itself costs US$169 ($240). For about US$80 more, the firm offers customised skin serums or vitamins. Imagene plans to add a line of workout beverages in the future, entirely customisable based on your gene profile. Within its first month, it has scored more than a hundred customers in Southeast Asia. A couple of gyms have partnered Imagene to offer personalised training to their clients. It also gained some prominent backers, including the former chairman of DBS Group Holdings, Koh Boon Hwee.

Multi-billion-dollar business
While genetic wellness programmes are still new in Southeast Asia, they are part of a fast-growing multi- billion-dollar industry. The cost of genome sequencing has fallen from US$3 billion to just US$1,000 in about a decade. The genomics market is now growing 10.3% each year and is expected to hit US$22.1 billion in 2020, according to Harvard University.

About three years ago, Wong — who is the former vice-president of Parkway Group Healthcare — cottoned on to the trend and founded Asia Genomics. The company offers genetic tests for cancer, reproductive and cardiovascular health patients through partner labs overseas. Tests can only be ordered by medical professionals today. A year ago, Asia Genomics formed Imagene to enter the wellness market.

Genetic-based wellness may be the more lucrative market. It meets little to no resistance from most government regulatory boards, including Singapore. According to at least two molecular diagnostic firms, gene testing and interpretation require regulatory approval. This could take years and is expensive. In 2013, USbased genetic testing company 23andMe was made to stop selling its Personal Genome Service kit after the Food and Drug Administration said it did not have the proper approval to give people life-altering health information based on a spit sample. It received FDA approval to provide some types of genetic information to customers last year.

In Asia, regulations are not as onerous, and approval processes are cheaper and quicker. As a result, there is a growing number of start-ups offering gene testing here. Some, like Dr Gene Hong Kong, offer a combination of medical and wellness testing. Others, such as Korea’s Genoplan, are focused on the wellness market.

Controversial field
Genetic testing for dietary, fitness or wellness factors remains a contested field among the medical community. Studies published in Nature — a prominent medical journal — show that mutations thought to be harmful can be benign, suggesting that our understanding of genes and its association with diseases and wellness may not be as thorough as we like. In 2014, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the US said it was too early to use genomics to provide dietary advice. Another study funded by the European Union concluded that personalised nutritional advice improved eating habits. But it also suggested that it did not matter what the personalised diet was based on, be it biomarkers or genetic variants.

“This is one of those half-truth things, like the vitamin C and shrimp story or alkaline water and cancer — a mixture of some facts and rubbish,” says associate professor Tan Nguan Soon from Nanyang Technological University’s school of biological sciences. Some websites, circulated emails and text messages claim that eating shrimp after taking vitamin C will lead to a chemical reaction producing deathly amounts of arsenic, and that alkaline water can treat cancer by creating a pH environment that is hostile for cancer cells. Neither claim is true, although the scientific principles behind the claim have some validity.

“These companies play on [a situation in which they cannot lose],” says Tan, who specialises in genomics. “If one followed their recommended diet and did not develop osteoporosis, the companies say their genetic sequencing has prevented that. If this person develops osteoporosis, the company can say the genetic sequencing predicted it correctly.”

Wong, however, points out that there are also studies that show certain genes do affect health. “We are using the genetic perspective for customisation, which is more accurate than the questionnaires [traditionally employed within the wellness field],” he says. Also, studies done on cancer patients show that personalised nutritional supplements improve recovery rates. But he concedes that the field is still young. “It would be another five years before we see [studies done on how] predisposition translates into real effect.”

Meanwhile, Wong is creating digital tools to help his customers measure the impact of Imagene’s products and services. Among them is a photo-based mobile application to check for wrinkles and a blood test to measure biological age. “We think if our vitamins that are based on your genetic profile are working, your biological age should improve or stay the same,” he says. These tools are expected to be ready in the first quarter of 2017. Imagene will also launch other genetic-based wellness tests next year.

Raising funds
Imagene is currently raising US$20 million to expand its services to the region. Wong wants to reach 100,000 consumers by 2018, and a big part of his expansion plan lies in China — a country where obesity and dietary issues are escalating to become a national health crisis. “The goal is to be a pan-Asian molecular testing company,” he says.

Already, Wong has some venture firms and investors backing him. Formation 8 Partners, Raffles Venture Partners and Spring Seed Capital are among his early backers. “People all over the world are more educated and more aware of their health and well-being. Imagene Labs, the lifestyle arm of Asia Genomics, will make truly personalised wellness solutions accessible to a broad consumer market,” says backer Koh. “The fitness, nutrition and skincare industries that Imagene will focus on are multi-billion-dollar businesses.”

This article appeared in the Enterprise of Issue 758 (Dec 12) of The Edge Singapore.