January 18, 2019

Looking good in those genes

Your day begins with a cup of joe, and to get through the afternoon, you’ll be gulping down a few more: There’s a gene for that. 

Caligenix, a genetics-based lifestyle company in Brentwood, can help people find out whether they have that caffeine-craving gene variation, along with many others that affect health and lifestyle. The company’s services are based on the science of nutritional genetics — how genes influence metabolism, diet, nutrition and response to exercise — and begin with a simple sample of saliva.

For some time now, scientists have been saying that the future of preventive health lies in knowing a person’s genetic makeup. After the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, many predicted that genetic testing would soon provide people with an accessible and reliable way to improve their health and lifestyle. But the ability to do so was still a long way off. 

But in May of last year, dentist Tzur Gabi and entrepreneur Eliad Josephson co-founded Caligenix, providing genetic testing, interpretation and recommendations through their network of providers, which includes registered dietitians and nutritionists, a holistic coach and a lifestyle coach. 

After collecting a sample of a client’s saliva, Caligenix sends it to a CLIA- and CAP-accredited clinical laboratory in San Diego, where it is tested for 78 genetic markers that impact metabolism.  

Within two to three weeks, the results are returned to Caligenix, where a provider interprets them, gleaning information like whether the client would benefit more from endurance training — such as mid- or long-distance walking, jogging or bicycling — or strength training; whether she is susceptible to Achilles tendon injuries, so she’ll know when and how to stretch; why he doesn’t feel satiated after a meal and has difficulty resisting dessert; and whether she is prone to particular vitamin deficiencies. After interpreting the genetic test, providers give the client actionable plans focused on nutrition and exercise. The cost to clients is between $495 and $995, depending on insurance coverage.

Gabi, Caligenix’s chief medical officer, likens genetic testing to a road map to the body. 

“Let’s say I asked you to drive to Tulsa, Okla. Wouldn’t you ask for a map? Or would you make your way without a guide?” Gabi said. “Genetic testing is the map I give my patients to get to Oklahoma.” 

Gabi’s dental practice is what he calls “genetically guided” — all of his patients receive the genetic test. His office has an in-house registered dietitian nutritionist, who develops a preventive genetic-based meal plan for each patient.

The test reveals how the body processes sugars, fats, nutrients and vitamins — all of which, Gabi said, play a role in dental health. 

“Low levels of vitamin C have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of periodontal disease, increased permeability of the oral mucosa to bacterial toxins [and] impaired immune response,” Gabi said.  

Vitamin C deficiency can ultimately lead to scurvy. The vitamin is also vital in forming the amino acids needed to produce collagen for bone formation and calcification to support the teeth, as well as for wound healing. 

“Deficiencies of protein, vitamin D or calcium may lead to the [resorption] of bone around the teeth and destruction of the periodontal ligaments that anchor the teeth to the jawbones,” Gabi said. “Women with severe osteoporosis are three times more likely to experience tooth loss.” 

Because an individual’s genes are present at birth and remain the same for their entire life, anyone can take the test at any time. 

Mor Levy, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in lactation, believes that “in the ideal world, the test should happen when you are born.” Levy is a Caligenix provider who has a practice in Calabasas. 

The earlier you understand what is optimal for your body, Levy said, the more preventive action you can take. This knowledge might help parents, for example, understand the eating habits of a picky child or their sensitivity to lactose.

Levy starts by asking patients about their diet and exercise regimens. She also asks for as much of their own and their family’s medical history as they can provide. But there are often holes in this narrative, and even with a complete history, one can’t know whether a parent’s gene might be recessive in the next generation. Rather than rely on this incomplete information, Levy encourages testing, which takes the guesswork out of one’s genetic makeup. 

“Even if you do know your ancestry, that doesn’t mean you will have the gene that causes a heart attack,” Levy said.

But back to the question of coffee addiction. The gene linked to this is CYP1A2; a liver enzyme that is encoded by this gene is responsible for metabolizing caffeine. Variation at a marker for this gene results in different levels of enzyme activity and, therefore, different rates of metabolizing caffeine. 

“The test shows how quickly you metabolize caffeine,” Levy said. “If you metabolize it faster, this means your body will eliminate it quicker, thus you won’t stay caffeinated as long.” 

Caligenix’s plans for 2015 include continuing to spread awareness of the benefits of nutritional genetics through the company’s integration into many types of practices, including gyms, wellness centers and health care providers. They also offer genetic tests for the breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA and other genetic diseases, but the primary focus is on genetic testing to improve healthy lifestyles.

“Right now, this is one more tool for [health] providers,” Josephson said. Genetic testing, he added, is “one more scientific tool to help them understand how to deal with an issue.”