Do you have the hairy-back-gene? Are you susceptible to certain diseases? Why do you think you hate long-distance running? Believe it or not, genetic testing could give you a more or less accurate response to similar questions – and thus help you finally adjust your lifestyle according to the inner code to your unique life. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about direct-to-consumer genetic testing and try as many as possible so that I can tell you what you can expect from them. This time, I reviewed t
Hopping on the Atlas Biomed train
Reviewing a genetic test is an exciting journey from the sampling process through the long waiting period until the interpretation of the results. As I have a background in clinical genomics, I get overly enthusiastic about these types of tests, and I have taken up this expedition several times already. I documented my experiences with Navigenics, Pathway Genomics, My Gentle Labs, Futura Genetics, and I also got my whole genome sequenced. In addition, I collected a list of reliable direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies and gave advice on which genetic testing kit to choose.
Thus, I was delighted when Atlas Biomed contacted me and offered me two tests: a genetic and a gut microbiome test. The London-based company, established in 2016, uses technology from Illumina for molecular analysis and conducts the genetic testing in a Dutch laboratory. On the Atlas Biomed website, the team promises such a detailed analysis about a person’s genetic background that I’ve never seen before: a risk profile for 19 multifactorial diseases and carrier status for common gene variants linked to 322 hereditary conditions; an overview of metabolism of vitamins and micronutrients, food intolerances and dietary recommendations; risk evaluation for sports injuries; an ethnic heritage, paternal and maternal haplogroups; and personality traits, such as whether you can smell asparagus in your urine or how do you sense the scent of violets.
At first, I thought that this is too much, so I accepted the challenge and sent back both my genetic and gut microbiome test for analysis. Here, I show you the results of my genetic test. In a separate article, I’ll also write up my experience with the gut microbiome analysis – so keep on following The Medical Futurist.Starting up: The sampling process
At first, some background to the genetic testing process: the entire journey starts with the sampling procedure, continues with weeks of waiting and ends with the interpretation of the results – for that, I strongly suggest using the help of a genetic counselor and your primary care physician. Thus, it is a longer adventure, but you can learn so much about yourself that it is definitely worth the try.
So, first things first. The sampling process. Genetic tests have a fairly similar sampling process, which usually involves saliva and its container to ship back the sample to the company for analysis. The most important thing is that you can’t eat, drink, smoke or even chew a piece of gum at least for half an hour before taking a test. When you are ready, you need to fill up the testing tube with saliva. It seems like an easy job, but it takes a bit of time. It’s recommended to massage your cheeks to produce more saliva.
Once you’re done, you screw on the cap releasing the DNA preserving liquid. You mix the materials and then seal the container. All you have left to do is some administrative work, which is necessary since you’re dealing with a biological sample, but then you can send it back to the lab. Now, the most annoying part begins: waiting.
Good things come to those who wait: expectations and waiting
Waiting is NOT among my favorite activities. I understand that shipping the package, conducting the genetic analysis and uploading the results takes time, still, I’m impatient and prefer to have the results as soon as possible – and even earlier than that. In Atlas Biomed’s case, I had to wait for 4 weeks – which doesn’t sound that much, but if you think about the fact that worker bees in a beehive live only one week more than that, the picture looks quite different.
Luckily, the company kept me posted about the progress of my analysis and they also sent me a survey to assess my general lifestyle habits and to get to know me better. I had to respond to questions about my height, weight, my workout plan, my diet, whether I smoke, and what is my pooping routine. So, they tried to obtain every piece of detail about my lifestyle that cannot be mined from a genetic test. I also checked what kind of reports I could expect, and I was happy to get familiarized with the personal account where I could await the most detailed genetic report that I could ever receive. Well, when it finally arrived, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
A DNA-based lifestyle coach in your pocket: The results
The report is available via a nicely designed, transparent and very user-friendly online dashboard. Honestly, it is the most receptible and understandable report that I’ve ever seen so far. The user can choose between fairly understandable menu items: Insights, Health, Nutrition, Sports, Personal traits, and Ancestry.
One of the most exciting is the ‘Insights’ part of the personal account as Atlas Biomed summarizes here everything you need to know and what you should know and do in order to keep yourself healthy. For example, they tell you to avoid high-intensity exercise or to strengthen your abdomen. You also receive a weekly list of recommendations about the food items that are beneficial for you. As if you had a DNA-based nutrition coach in your pocket.
However, browsing through the results could become overwhelming and there are certain outcomes which cannot be interpreted easily – not even with a background in clinical genomics. That’s why genetic counseling is badly needed, and so I reached out to the Atlas Biomed team’s genetic counselor to help me interpret the results.
Health risks and nutritional advice
As described before, Atlas Biomed promises to build up your risk profile for 19 multifactorial diseases and carrier status for common gene variants linked to 322 hereditary conditions. The company explains the risk factor for each and every disease, and also lists the studies based on which the team determines the risk score.
I was glad to see that Atlas Biomed isn’t concerned with percentages, but they rather provide the test takers with ‘calls to action’. They group the conditions into high-risk, increased, average, moderate, or low-risk categories, and indicate for the user unambiguously which one they must consider. I could read a description about the disease itself, as well as how my genetic background, my gut microbiome, as well as my lifestyle based on the survey I filled in during the waiting period, impact the given risk category.
I consider myself lucky as I’m not a carrier for any of the more than 300 hereditary conditions, however, when I asked the genetic counselor about this she told me that to be 100 percent sure, it should be examined with a more detailed scientific method and they do not undertake such a thing.
Concerning my results in the nutrition category, I’ll give a more detailed insight when I present the results of my gut microbiome analysis in another article, but there are some genetic factors here as well, so I cannot fully exclude nutrition from this description either. Atlas Biomed provides genetic analysis for the metabolism of dozens of vitamins, they discern various enzyme activities based on the genetic background and estimate what vitamin deficiencies could result from that.
For example, it turned out that I should take much more A and E vitamin, and also iron than what I have known about. It also emerged that there is a reason why coriander is my all-time favorite spice because I’m sensitive to coriander leaves. I also got to know that I don’t have any lactose, gluten, or alcohol intolerance (well, as a Central European I sort of sensed the latter), and I cannot take in bitter flavors. The report detailed that I process caffeine in a slower than usual manner – and that’s the explanation of why I have to drink coffee before a work session and not during any meeting.
The Sports, Ancestry, and Personality traits section
To be honest, the results in the Sports section were the most difficult to interpret for me. The team indicated that I most probably don’t produce enough EPO (Erythropoietin, also known as hematopoietic or haemopoietin), which stimulates red blood cell production in the bone marrow. However, as Atlas Biomed doesn’t require any blood test, they just deduce this from my genetic background, I handle this piece of information with skepticism. Although the genetic counselor told me that this could explain why I don’t fancy long-distance running – or more honestly, why I cannot endure on longer stretches. It also turned out that it is more likely for me to get inguinal hernia than spinal disc herniation. Good to know!
When looking at my ancestry results, I could compare that to the outcome of the National Geographic ancestry test that I did a couple of years ago. Both tests said that I’m a 100 percent European, and most likely Central European. Atlas Biomed found that I have the same haplogroup as Tom Hanks and Copernicus, while NatGeo found that I share an ancestry line with Napoleon. However, both tests said that I have less Neanderthal SNPs than the majority of people – according to Atlas Biomed I possess 229 SNPs while the average user has 563 – but I happen not to carry the variant responsible for a hairy back. And behold, I don’t have one!
And thus, we arrived at the fun fact section: Personality traits. These are obviously not for serious medical and scientific consideration, but rather for entertainment. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn surprising facts about myself. For example, if I look at the Sun, there’s a bigger chance that I’ll sneeze. I will have grey hair only at a later age, I do smell asparagus in my urine or that I have wet earwax. You just cannot live without the last piece of information, can you?
How does the Atlas Biomed genetic test compare to other tests?
As I already went through several genetic testing experiences, I compared my Atlas Biomed results to previous outcomes. However, I have to tell you beforehand that different DTC companies use different technologies for analysis, as it is definitely so in the case of whole-genome sequencing, thus the results may widely vary. For example, the genetic counselor told me that my risk for melanoma, which I usually receive when taking a genetic test for health risks, could not appear in the case of Atlas Biomed as they do not examine the gene variants for complex cancer risks. Moreover, my risk for thrombosis, another well-documented health risk for me, is due to the Factor V Leiden that I have, which the company also doesn’t take into consideration – they look at SNPs, the nucleotide variants in genes.
On the other hand, I received various results from Atlas Biomed that I didn’t get elsewhere: the vitamin deficiency risks, the coriander or hairy back issue, etc. On the other hand, my caffeine metabolism, as well as the fact that I can smell asparagus in my urine, turned up elsewhere as well.
To sum up, Atlas Biomed provides a very user-friendly genetic testing service: the dashboard and the final report are one of the most nicely designed, most understandable outcome presentations that I’ve ever seen. In addition, the list of results is logical and easy to internalize, while the calls to action are very practical. The company has an efficient customer service, and the genetic counselor’s advice was very insightful. She was badly needed for the interpretation of my results.
That also means that some outcomes are difficult to process without any help and going after them takes more time and energy. Moreover, when I received my results, I had three conditions (coronary heart disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis) in the high-risk category. However, when I asked the genetic counselor about the diseases, she told me that according to her report, these are in the low-risk category. After our conversation, these conditions mysteriously got “downgraded” into the low-risk category without any explanation. I understand that results change according to every new study, however, it would have been nice to receive some heads up about the modifications.