DNA-Testing Kit Company to Launch Huge Weight-loss Study Focused on Diet, Exercise and Genes

Right now, a lot of Americans are getting their skis out of the attic and trying to fit into last year’s snow pants. More than a few will regret drinking that extra cup of eggnog.

To mark the season, consumer DNA testing company 23andMe is kicking off what it terms a “massive study” into the genetic basis of weight loss that it says will ultimately involve 100,000 people.

The company, based in Mountain View, California, says that starting this week it will begin contacting 1.3 million of its customers with an offer to take part in the project by sticking to one of two diets or an exercise plan for three months, reporting back on whether their waistlines grew or shrank.

The crowdsourced study may prove to be the most comprehensive attempt yet to discern the links between people’s genes and dieting success. 23andMe hopes what it learns will let it create predictive models that provide tailored weight loss advice as part of its consumer genetic reports.

Already, consumers can pick from a dozen or more DNA tests that promise diet insights. But the tests have come under withering criticism from prominent doctors who say they’re no better than the tips you’d get from a nutritionist or a friend at the gym. The advice might be okay; it’s the DNA test that’s a waste of money.

According to 23andMe, previous studies attempting to link DNA to dieting outcomes haven’t had enough participants to zero in on genetic factors. Its new project will involve 10 to 50 times as many volunteers as previous work, says Geoffrey Benton, the company’s head of health R&D.

The company holds DNA data on more than three million customers who have sent in saliva samples. That makes it one of the two or three largest biobanks in the world. After customers’ DNA is analyzed, they receive reports about their geographic ancestry, how many Neanderthal genes they have, and a few hereditary health risks.

Buyers also receive a prediction of their body mass based on their genes, a report telling them whether they have an inborn tendency to be heavier or thinner. The problem is 23andMe can’t yet tell them what to do about it, making the results mostly irrelevant.

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Source: Technology Review