by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 8, 2007 in DNA Products, DNA Testing, Personalities with DNA
Mention nutrigenomic testing to anyone involved in consumer genetics and chances are, they’ll roll their eyes, sigh, and say that it’s all a huckster’s game to get people to buy vitamins. Not withstanding that nutrigenomics is an actual science, I don’t believe that nutrigenetic testing is any more misleading than all the other crazy fitness and diet stuff you see on TV. What about Sole Detox Pads for cleansing your body of harmful toxins or the Vibro Power Belt for slimming? Surely those are at least as, if not more, outrageous as the idea of analyzing genetic variants to personalize an individual’s nutritional program.
Today, I’m giving Derek W. Hornby, Chief Information Officer of Suracell Personal Genetic Health, a chance to defend his company and nutrigenomics in general in the following interview.
Hsien Lei (HL): Can you tell us about Suracell and how it differs from other companies offering nutrigenomic testing, e.g., Sciona and Salugen?
Derek Hornby (DH): Suracell came about almost by accident. Our most senior board member and our President and Founder both had health issues which had been “diagnosed” as related to “getting older” — but this was an unacceptable diagnosis for both of them. They were introduced to each other when they became patients of an age management physician (Dr. Vincent C. Giampapa). Dr. Giampapa told them both that a strict regimen that included various supplements would help relieve their symptoms. But our senior board member was already spending hundreds of dollars a month on supplements, without much improvement. That is when Dr. Giampapa explained that to make a real difference, each individual’s supplement regimen should be personalized, which could be done via a series of Biomarker and DNA tests, combined with information about family history. Each person’s regimen would then only contain what was required for them, and they would save money by not buying supplements that had little value for them. Then, Suracell’s president (a serial entrepreneur) decided that through using scalable information technology, the testing and analysis process could be expanded from a couple of hundred patients to hundreds of thousands — so Suracell is really a marriage of science and information technology (I am the IT specialist in the founding group.) [Editor's note: Derek definitely into IT as evidenced by the Suracell Inc. Blog.]
As for Sciona, they are focused on dietary recommendations, and Salugen (who were founded a year later than us), have a program that is sort of like a “half Suracell” program.
HL: What specific genes does the Suracell DNA test analyze? How were they selected?
DH: We analyze 27 individual SNPs. To develop our panel of SNPs, we worked with a microbiology and genetics team based in Canada. We had some idea of which areas of health we wanted to target, and their task was to determine which SNPs had the most impact on those areas. The SNPs that were included had to meet certain criteria, such as: identified as relevant by studies from multiple reputable authorities (usually university or NIH research); studies must be human-based; studies must be peer-reviewed and published in authoritative journal; studies must show relevance across a broad spectrum of racial characteristics (Caucasian, African, Asian), and various other criteria. For example, we cannot include data related to the SIRT1 gene in our panel, even though we think it is very important to health and aging, because it does not meet our “human study” criteria — yet.
HL: What makes Suracell’s nutritional supplements different from those we can purchase from the drug store?
DH: The short answer is everything (which is why they are more expensive to produce, so we charge more for them). They are manufactured in the US from certified ingredients, by a facility licensed by the FDA as a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Core Nutrition AM and PM each contain around 72 individual ingredients. Like Core Nutrition, the “repair” formulations (regular strength and extra strength) contain a combination of ingredients that, if purchased as individual supplements, would be more than 10 times the cost (and some of the ingredients are simply not available, except as ingredients in our supplements). If you have time, do this: print our product labels off the Suracell website, then use Google to research each of the ingredients (or click on each ingredient on our website, and we will tell you why it is included). Then take the printed labels to your local supplement store, and do some comparison shopping — I guarantee that you will not be able to find anything comparable, and the price of creating a similar regimen will be over ten times more expensive. I should offer a reward to anyone who takes on this challenge!
HL: What was Suracell’s reaction to the GAO’s hearing last year and this year’s Laboratory Improvement Act* introduced to the Senate by Senators Gordon Smith and Edward Kennedy regarding the regulation of direct-to-consumer DNA tests?
DH: The GAO produced a “half-baked” report, which the Senate Committee on Aging then used to get some publicity in the media. I don’t know what the motivation was, but it looked like the usual DC waste of taxpayer dollars to me. Also, a primary complaint of the committee about Suracell was that we charged a lot for our supplements (from a Republican, no less!). Well, our clients like paying more for what they believe is something better than the cheaper versions. I guess Senator Smith wants everyone to drive Chevys and wear Timexes, but some people like Bentleys and Rolexes — even in Russia, freedom of choice to buy more expensive products is allowed. As a foreigner myself, I don’t know why it would be an issue in the USA, where freedom and capitalism were born.
However, the bottom line for Suracell was that we decided that if the GAO could misinterpret our tests and results,so could the general public. So we stopped selling our tests direct to consumers, and now all testing is done by physicians and health care practices, who are trained to interpret and present the test results using their health care background, and present the test results in the context of an overall healthy approach to living, such as diet and exercise and avoiding other health risks.
We are also big supporters of the tightening of CLIA regulations suggested by Senators Smith and Kennedy (as a liberal democrat myself, Ted Kennedy is a hero of mine — Senator Smith? …not so much!)
The independent labs used by Suracell are CLIA certified, and Suracell Inc. also was inspected by CLIA, and we found the CMS / CLIA personnel very helpful in assisting us to interpret the regulations around genetic testing and to recommend the changes that we needed to make to be in compliance. Now we would like to see everyone else in the field get into compliance.
HL: Do you think everyone should have their DNA tested? Have you?
DH: I sure have, both for genealogy and for nutrigenomics, but I think privacy of our DNA is an issue that must be addressed . I think the worst abuses are going to be in the forensics areas — take a look at the proposals of Elliott Spitzer, the Governor of New York when it comes to gathering DNA. There you have an attempt to implement a true “Big Brother” scenario of creating a law designed to provide a government entity with broad permission to gather and catalog as many individual DNA samples as possible — without much oversight of this information.
Thank, Derek, for taking the time to share your thoughts on nutrigenomics and the consumer genetic testing landscape. I like that Suracell is being more transparent about what they do and what goes on behind the scenes.
If any other DNA tech companies would like to be featured in an interview, please email me!
*The Laboratory Improvement Act was introduced on March 1, 2007. It will ask that direct-to-consumer DNA tests go through FDA assessment for accuracy and reliability. A public database was proposed that would contain information on FDA approval, laboratory certification, and whether the test has any clinical validity to diagnose or screen diseases or conditions and whether it can be used to make decisions about medical care.
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