07 May 2013
In astrology and janampatri-crazy India, a Hyderabad-based company called Mapmygenome has launched GenomePatri, a scientifically-validated personal health horoscope charted by mining one's genetic profile.
Mapmygenome's cleverly-named GenomePatri is only one of a rash of recently-launched personal genetic mapping services. In the past months, a proliferation of Indian companies are offering prognostic tests to decode DNA based on a simple saliva sample and lay bare the health risks a person could have inherited from parents and ancestors. For a fee ranging from Rs 9,999-25,000, these companies analyse a person's predisposition to diseases, risks accrued from diet and lifestyle factors and drug responses.
Personal genomics, the newest and most sophisticated of medical techniques, is recent in India but is widely prevalent in the West. A person's DNA gleaned from a few drops of saliva can aid presymptomatic testing and estimate the risk of developing a range of diseases from diabetes to adult-onset cancers and Alzheimer's disease.
"We test in 50 broad areas ranging from metabolic disorders to oesophageal cancers," said Anu Acharya, the US-trained co-founder and CEO of Hyderabad-based Mapmygenome. About 250 Indians have already had their DNA profiling done from the company. The tests provide such insights like a person's genetic predisposal towards Type 2 diabetes (the DNA code, for instance, contains many of the snips that predict disease onset), help pin down traits such as the tendency to gain weight, and discover a person's response to different categories of drugs to help arrive at optimum drug dosages.
Similarly, the Chennai-based Xcode Life Sciences' Rs 9,999-service offers genetic predictive assessments for eight conditions including diabetes and stroke, along with an appraisal of the individual's body response to intake of caffeine or fat, for instance. The service has attracted a broad spectrum of Indians in the few months since its launch.
"Genetics provides you an advance glimpse into your disease pre-dispositions," said Saleem Mohammad, founder and CEO of Xcode, who has a PhD in bioinformatics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Armed with this knowledge, the tests allow individuals to take control of their health and take appropriate preventive measures. The genetic profile necessarily comes with genetic, medical & nutritional counselling session. The counsellor advises lifestyle changes that can help lower risks and check the progression of disease. The report can even recommend personalised drug treatments.
Parul Mittal, a Gurgaon-based web entrepreneur and author, was initially apprehensive when her husband, who works in venture capital, suggested that their family, two kids aged 11 years and 9 years included, get tested. "I already know of the 10 things that the parents, aunts and uncles suffer from, so I asked what is the point?" she said. The family eventually dispatched their saliva samples to Mapmygenome in Hyderabad.
When the reports pointed to advance markers for certain conditions, Mittal found that comforting rather than scary. "They will serve as our early warning system," she said. The already health-conscious Mittals have further cut down the "whites" — salt, sugar and refined flour — in their diet, she said.
Costs are still prohibitive for middle-class Indians and each company has only attracted a few hundred customers so far. But Indian mindsets about health are changing. "Indians are beginning to see it as an investment of a lifetime," said Acharya, who has worked for 12 years in the biotech industry with her company Ocimum Biosolutions.
Genetic testing could be the way forward in a country where there has been a rampant rise in Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Such tests could facilitate preventive healthcare in high-risk India and avert a looming healthcare disaster. In fact, mapping of one's genetic profile is expected to be a healthcare essential within the next decade, driving personalised, preventive medicine around the globe.
"India cannot afford to fall behind in harnessing this emerging medical technology; advances in all medical therapies will soon come down to the gene," said Dr Paul Salins, medical director of the Bangalore-based oncology specialty hospital, Mazumdar Shaw Cancer Centre. The centre supports genomic research projects that compare, for instance, the high incidence of cancers of the cheek compared with the fall in cancer of the mouth.
Dr Salins said that the price of personal genomic analysis has dropped from $100,000 four years ago to less than $1,000 today. In the area of cancer, therapy is prohibitively expensive and only genomic research could offer affordable and distinctive treatments, he said.
Indian genetic studies have lagged far behind the West but companies such as Mapmygenome, Xcode and the Delhi-based Nutragene could start building repositories of genetic data that could provide more data on the disease propensity of the Indian population. "Since the tests can be easily ordered online, many customers from smaller towns are taking our tests," Mohammed of Xcode said.