DNA testing is still in its infancy
Dr. Sean Penny, a homeopathic doctor at The Hundred Wellness, was among the pioneers to bring DNA testing to the UAE. Hailing from South Africa, Dr. Penny has conducted over 1000 DNA tests in the past 11 years.
In an interview with Shilpa Jasani, he explains DNA testing in layman’s terms.
According to Mayo Clinic Wikipedia, a genealogical DNA test looks at specific locations of a person's genome, in order to find or verify ancestral genealogical relationships. Simply speaking it’s a technology that can give you insight about your health based on your genetic code, with the possibility of preventing future illnesses. Doctors may recommend lifestyle changes or treatments to possibly prevent any disease that could take root in the future.
Explains Dr. Sean: "The DNA is an acid in the chromosomes in the centre of the cells of living things. It is the carrier of genetic information. The DNA code is utilized by the body to make things like eye or hair colour. Patients are advised to take the tests to check the body’s production of enzymes and other proteins. By knowing the person’s genetic makeup, we can find out whether they make adequate proteins or enzymes. Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases that makes for about 20,000 genes approximately. While it would not be possible to test all the genes, certain tests like a person’s eye or hair colour, are not required to be done. We specifically look at what is causing nutrigenomics (the scientific study of the interaction of nutrition and genes, especially with regard to the prevention or treatment of disease).” “A lot of the genes have nothing to do with lifestyle or cannot be influenced – for example your lifestyle is not going to change your eye colour or the gene responsible for thalassemia or cyctic fibrosis. Such traits are passed down in the family, its inherent in the person – the thalassemia condition would lead to low haemoglobin or anemia.”
When questioned about the role of genes in our overall wellbeing, Dr. Sean replies: “One commonly used quote speaks a lot about the relationship of genes and lifestyle on the health of an individual: ‘genetics looks to see if you have a loaded gun, and lifestyle determines whether you pull the trigger’. By that we can understand that lifestyle plays a significant role in the health and wellbeing of an individual. So one might have a loaded gun (bad genes) but one might not pull the trigger due to following a healthy lifestyle. A person with the APOEG gene that has code e4, has significantly higher risk of cardio-vascular disease or Alzheimer’s. But a person with the above condition following a predominantly whole food, plant based diet has a much lower risk, as that gene reacts specifically to a diet high in animal fat and toxins. At the same time, its important to remember that a person might have no mutation or faulty genes, but if he/she leads a no-exercise, junk food diet, there are high chances of developing cardiac issues. In my experience, in general terms, genes have a 20% impact on the health of an individual while 80% depends on his lifestyle. And lifestyle means physical, mental and emotional. Lifestyle is sleep, work environment, all of those things that play a role on the person’s stress levels. Having said that, some genes have a larger impact while others are less impactful. What we look at is risks and tendencies.
“When people do have faulty genes, the risks are much higher and therefore the test will guide them as to what is the most appropriate lifestyle that will reduce their body’s risk of common diseases.”
Isn’t is ironic that the more we know, we realize how little we actually know?
“This is absolutely true. As a child sitting on the opposite side of the table, I always thought the doctor knew everything. Now as a doctor sitting on this side, I know that we actually know very little. I was recently listening to a talk on detoxification. The person was so well informed and had done an immense amount of research, but at the end of the talk he said, ‘In reality, we actually don’t know much’. There are too many factors that play a role in a person’s wellbeing. DNA testing is a tool and guide, I don’t live and die by it. It’s a good foundational test and has its own value, but a lot depends on the interpretation of the report. I believe that genetic testing is still in its infancy. Usually 70 out of 20,000 genes get tested. We don’t test the genes whose expression cannot be altered. My brother and myself were among the first to introduce genetic testing in Dubai.
“In my opinion and through my experience, I would repeat again that the impact on a person’s health depends 80% on his lifestyle and 20% on genetics. I have seen people with a poor genetic makeup have no problems, and others with a good genetic makeup having issues like high cholesterol. The genetics provides me with an explanation of the symptoms that the person is suffering from but the treatment should be in the context of other factors as well. Gene testing is purely complementary and not diagnostic and should be supplemented by other tests like a biochemical test or blood test or even a good clinical history. The line of treatment that is advised always has at its core lifestyle changes and nutritional supplementation.”