Your Friday Dose of Woo (reborn): LifeDNA and its “personalized” skin care products

Long time readers of this blog (and I do mean long time) might remember a regular weekly feature I ran nearly every single Friday for a while from 2006 or so until 2008 or so that I used to lovingly call “Your Friday Dose of Woo.” Topics tended to be more light-hearted, as was the tone, given that the purpose of the feature was to focus on more—shall we say?—ridiculous forms of pseudoscience and quackery. Examples included quantum homeopathy, secrets of immortality, colon cleanses, liver flushes, detox blood cleanses, urine therapy, electron-enhanced water, touchless chiropractic (which has the advantage at least of not causing strokes), alkalinization nonsense (just like Wednesday), coffee enemas, getting it on for peace, Masaru Emoto’s water woo (in which talking to water with “intent” results in the water taking on whatever healing properties you want), detox foot pads, enhanced molecules, and DNA activation. (Did you know that in addition to your known two strands making up your DNA there are ten etheric strands? Mind blown, right?) Of course, I did stumble a couple of times by making too light of some serious quackery, like German New Medicine and trephination, but, by and large, the tone was light, which brings me to something called LifeDNA.

But before I get to LifeDNA, let me just start out by saying that I didn’t include all those links only to try to entice you to peruse my really old back library circa 2006, although if you were to want to do that I would certainly not object. I’m always curious if my writing is better now than it was then. Certainly there are differences as in I tend to be less relentlessly sarcastic now than I was then. More importantly, I listed all those topics just to show how ridiculous medical pseudoscience can be. Believe it or not, after relentlessly doing Your Friday Dose of Woo for over two years, I started to run out of ideas. I also didn’t like the blogging straightjacket in which I had trapped myself wherein I was forced to find something light and silly each and every Friday. So Your Friday Dose of Woo faded away, only to be resurrected occasionally.

Like now.

The other day I saw this:

Which led me to the LifeDNA website. It’s basically a company selling “personalized” skin care products and supplements based on your DNA. Yes, I wondered how long it would be before woo-meisters discovered the joys of claiming to use DNA testing to “personalize” their products. After all, “personalized” medicine—although these days “precision medicine” is the preferred buzzword—is all the rage in real medicine these days. So why not personalize pseudomedicine as well? I know, I know, quacks long ago co-opted “personalized medicine.” Heck, cancer quack Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski did it years ago when he declared himself with his “personalized gene-targeted” cancer therapy, which was in reality nothing more than making it up as he went along. Yet, in his arrogance, Burzynski actually thinks that he was expounding on the principles of personalized gene-targeted medicine in the early 1990s. Here’s a hint. He wasn’t. I checked. Also, his “personalized gene-targeted therapy” is a pale imitation of what real researchers are exploring.

So what is LifeDNA claiming to be able to do? Let’s take a look. Of course, its founders and scientists insist that it’s all science, ma-an:

  1. We look at more than a thousand scientific studies to understand what impact certain genetic markers (SNPs) may have on your health, wellness and skin.
  2. We analyze your genetics, looking for problematic SNPs in your DNA.
  3. We match these SNPs with the preventative effects of specific ingredients present in our supplements and skincare products.

SNP stands for single-nucleotide polymorphism. It refers to variations in the DNA sequence in the genome between individuals. Specifically, it refers to single-base variations in the same locations. Basically, DNA is made up of four bases—A, C, T, and G—strung along in a strand. The genetic code consists of three-base combinations that code for each amino acid in a given protein. (Yes, I know that’s horribly simplistic, but I don’t want to lose focus on the woo by delving into a genetics primer.) It turns out that SNPs are the most common type of genetic variation among people and occur normally throughout everyone’s DNA. Because they occur on average every 300 bases or so, there are roughly 10 million SNPs in the typical person’s genome. Most of these SNPs occur in the DNA sequences between genes, known as non-coding DNA (or, to use a horrible term that’s fallen out of favor but might be familiar to you, “junk DNA”).

According to the NIH’s Genetics Home Reference:

They [SNPs] can act as biological markers, helping scientists locate genes that are associated with disease. When SNPs occur within a gene or in a regulatory region near a gene, they may play a more direct role in disease by affecting the gene’s function.

Most SNPs have no effect on health or development. Some of these genetic differences, however, have proven to be very important in the study of human health. Researchers have found SNPs that may help predict an individual’s response to certain drugs, susceptibility to environmental factors such as toxins, and risk of developing particular diseases. SNPs can also be used to track the inheritance of disease genes within families. Future studies will work to identify SNPs associated with complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

So, yes, SNPs are a real thing. There are millions of them, and research shows that a subset of them might prove to be useful genetic markers for predicting disease susceptibility and drug response. So mapping SNPs has become an important area of research. To give you an idea, certain genetic diseases result from SNPs; e.g., sickle-cell anemia, β-thalassemia and cystic fibrosis. All of these diseases result from a single nucleotide substitution that changes the coding from the normal amino acid in a protein to an abnormal one that affects the function of a protein profoundly enough to cause a disease. It’s also known that a single base mutation in the apolipoprotein E gene is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, there are different kinds of SNPs. Single nucleotides may be changed (substitution), removed (deletion) or added (insertion) to a polynucleotide sequence.

So now that you know the background, what on earth is LifeDNA claiming regarding SNPs? Well:

Your DNA holds a mind-blowing amount of information: your ancestry information, your risk for certain vitamin deficiencies, and your unique response to nutrients.

All this comes together to create the perfect blueprint for your supplements and skincare routine.

Because, of course, if I had all that genetic information and the science to know what it means, the first thing I’d want to do is to use it to make better skincare products and supplements. Of course, while it is true that one’s DNA holds a “mind-blowing” amount of information, it does not follow that LifeDNA has the slightest clue what that “mind-blowing” information means or how to use it. Hell, scientists don’t really know yet what to do with a lot of SNP information, and doctors sure don’t know how to use a lot of it in medicine. We’re learning, but when there are 10 million SNPs and we only know some that have relevance to specific aspects of human health, it’s a, yes, “mind-blowingly” difficult task. Moreover, the clinical use of many of those SNPs has not been validated in clinical trials; so using them to direct even skincare is at best a guessing game.

None of this stops LifeDNA from touting its “nutrigenetics” and “nutrigenomics.” Now, if you Google these terms, you’ll find that they are real things in science, but you’ll also find that a lot of quacks have glommed onto the terms to sell products. For instance, here’s a recent review paper summarizing current knowledge. If you read it, you’ll notice that it’s long on observations about SNPs associated with disease and short on actual recommendations of how to use that knowledge to prevent disease and clinical trial evidence to back up those recommendations. That’s because the field is in its infancy, and it’s because most of the evidence is epidemiological and in animal models.

LifeDNA, of course, has a list of research references. Annoyingly, whoever put together the list was too damned lazy to actually list the references in a form that would let me know at a glance which ones would be of most interest for me to check out because all that’s there is a list of PubMed links. For instance, under the MTHFR section, I don’t really care very much for purposes of skin care products or supplements that there are SNPs associated with folic acid metabolism that are associated with an increased risk of the birth defect omphalocele. Perusing as many of the articles as I could stand, I was struck by how irrelevant the vast majority of them are to the claims being made for LifeDNA products or the science behind them:

If a study is performed on only 100 people with similar genetic backgrounds, it probably won’t be useful to our global community. We focus on research that includes a diverse group of people to make sure the study will have the most reliable outcomes.

Some journals are so important, they’ve been cited by hundreds of other researchers. Journals like that have a “high impact factor,” and this is exactly the kind of critical research we prefer to use when crafting your supplements and skincare.

Some genetic studies use only a small section of the genetic code to reach broad conclusions. Although this can be effective in certain cases, we prefer to focus on studies that use Genome-Wide Association: studying the entire genetic code to find the most accurate answers.

Point one (not using small studies) is, of course, unobjectionable. Point two is rather naive, as there is a lot of crap in high impact factor journals too. Indeed, as I’ve discussed before, it’s often the most cutting edge scientific studies, the most tentative results, that are published in such journals and therefore the most likely to be wrong. (Also, some journals like Nature have a penchant for defending pseudoscience.) As for the third point about GWAS studies, holy hell. Has LifeDNA not read all the studies and analyses of how widely divergent the results of different GWAS studies looking at the same disease markers can be?

LifeDNA provides an example:

The MTHFR gene codes for an enzyme known as methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, or MTHFR. This enzyme is crucial for methylation, a process that is essential for all bodily functions.

Certain SNPs in the MTHFR gene can cause the enzyme to malfunction, resulting in an increased risk of certain diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disorders, neurological defects, some forms of cancer, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, and pregnancy complications.

If we find that your MTHFR gene is disrupted, your LifeDNA supplement pack will contain ingredients that have been scientifically proven to improve the methylation process and increase energy.

We examine over 100 different SNPs, with a research database of over 1,100 peer-reviewed studies. This gives us an incredibly clear blueprint of your life and DNA, helping us create the very best combination of products for you.

I note that MTHFR testing is a favorite modality of autism quacks, particularly naturopaths, functional medicine quacks, and antivaxers. There are, indeed, real health consequences due to certain mutations in the MTHFR gene, but you don’t need genetic testing to find them. As Britt Hermes notes:

The most severe problems with this gene are neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, which are detectable during pregnancy with ultrasound. Other MTHFR polymorphisms result in high blood levels of homocysteine which can cause problems with the eyes, blood clotting, skeletal formation, and cognition. Okay, but there is a simple blood test for homocysteine levels.

Also, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics has concluded that there is a lack of evidence for MTHFR polymorphism testing, which, it further concludes, has “minimal clinical utility.” Meanwhile, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia has concluded that for adjusting diet MTHFR testing is not justified:

The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia considers that there is insufficient evidence of benefit to recommend MTHFR testing at present. Although tests for MTHFR gene variants have analytical validity, the clinical validity is uncertain and the clinical utility is unproven. Accordingly, the College does not recommend MTHFR testing as a basis for medical decision-making in patients who receive a normal, folate-fortified diet.

Indeed, a nice summary of the recommendations of various professional societies on MTHFR testing can be found here, and some laboratories won’t even do the test any more. Another review concludes quite clearly that “testing is not indicated as a non-specific screening test in the asymptomatic general population.”

So, yes, I call bullshit on LifeDNA. MTHFR testing, at least as sold by companies like LifeDNA, is not scientifically justified.

So what products are we talking about? Well, if you believe LifeDNA, SNPs in the MMP1 gene mean wrinkles, FLG means dry skin, TGF-β2 means blemishes, and so on. Of course, LifeDNA has a skincare product “targeted” at your specific SNP based on dubious evidence at best. Indeed, it offers two products, the DNA Beauty Pack for $239 and the DNA Glamor Pack for $329. (Clever, the same three digits in the price!) All include skin analysis, DNA testing, a LifeDNA skin report, ancestry breakdown, and the first three months of a subscription to “your customized cleanser, toner, and moisturizer tailored to your DNA.” The more expensive package includes more stuff, like a diet and fitness report and nutritional recommendations. I note that the continued subscriptions are pretty pricey: $189/quarter or $289/quarter for the Beauty Pack and Glamor Pack, respectively, after the first quarter that’s included with the initial test expires.

As for the supplements, I saw products to “aid” MTHFR, products to “regulate” APOE2, and the like. Just for yucks, I took the test on the website to see what I might need. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t give me any results unless I signed up for an account; so I bailed.

Depressingly, there are real scientists on the LifeDNA team, although how they do it I wonder. For instance, Swati Kadam Ph.D. is listed as working in epigenetics for Thermo Fisher Scientific and described as a “a passionate leader with experience developing global marketing strategies and creating innovative content marketing solutions for the Life Sciences and Biotechnology markets.” Her LinkedIn profile lists her as Manager, Global Marketing – Clinical Diagnostics at Thermo Fisher since June 2017. Oddly enough, she doesn’t appear to list her position at LifeDNA on her profile. She also has a YouTube channel called Genome Hacker. As for the other scientist, Maarit I. Tiirikainen Ph.D., she’s Faculty Co-Director of the Genomics and Bioinformatics Shared Resource at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Oddly enough, her LinkedIn profile doesn’t mention LifeDNA either. As for the third scientist, it’s just a postdoc named Fabricio F. Costa Ph.D. (Sure, he’s a postdoc at Harvard, but he’s still just a postdoc.) He also seems to have a lot of other business interests.

Finally, there’s Jamie Koonce, DACM, L.Ac., Dipl. OM, founder of the Biohacking School and Gut Hacking School. Bingo! There’s the quack on the scientific advisory board, who describes herself as a functional medicine practitioner, herbalist, biohacker, yogini, and author. As you can see, she’s also an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Because of course she is, and of course she sells lots and lots of supplements and products.

This is some seriously woo-ful stuff, and, as Steve Salzberg put it:

Personally, I don’t have a PhD from Harvard (it’s from Case Western Reserve University), but I do have a medical degree from the University of Michigan, which is, as we like to call it, the Harvard of the Midwest, and I can say after having perused the LifeDNA website that this is 100% pure grade-C (not grade-A) bullshit.