ROCKINGHAM — Genetic testing and individualized medical treatment are slowly becoming the new normal on the frontier of health care, and FirstHealth of the Carolinas now offers patients access to Pathway Genomics’ PathwayFit, a program designed to help people enjoy longer and healthier lives according to their specific genetic makeup.
Melissa Herman, outpatient diabetes, nutrition and bariatric manager for FirstHealth, explained how the DNA sample is taken while describing how the analysis of the material reveals information that can help people to understand their unique metabolism and response to exercise. The sampling process involves filling a container with saliva.
“This is more intimidating than it looks,” she said, producing a sizable plastic tube with an open top. “You only have to fill from the dotted line to the fill line, so it’s not this whole thing. They do suggest that you swab the insides of your cheeks with your tongue to get a good sample.”
From the dotted line to the fill line looked to be about an inch high — a fraction of the total size of the sample kit.
Having the test doesn’t involve putting on a flimsy hospital gown. It doesn’t even involve being in a hospital. The whole thing takes only about five to 10 minutes and can be done in a comfy chair in an office.
The tests, which according to FirstHealth’s accompanying flier, “…provide a genetic nutrition and exercise profile that tells you how you may react to specific types of food and exercise, and provides insights into how your body may process sugars, fats, nutrients and vitamins,” are somewhat expensive and are not covered by insurance.
PathwayFit consists of four separate tests that cost about $200 each, but can be purchased as a package for $450 — but you know what they say about the value of that proverbial “ounce of prevention.” And services that are part of the tests include an initial evaluation with a dietician, a review of results by a geneticist, result consultation with a dietician and the development of an action plan.
Results normally take three to four weeks to come back.
“It’s based on genetic markers, and geneticists are able to learn about (whether) an individual is genetically at risk for vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, cholesterol, what kind of diet and what kind of exercise is best,” Herman said. “You do not actually find out whether you have these deficiencies or conditions, but the markers can help predict whether you are at risk.”
Recommendations for preventing disease and vitamin deficiencies that are specific to each patient, she said, is important in combating predictive patterns in genetic makeup that can be controlled through diet and exercise.
“So then you can adjust your eating and exercise habits,” Herman said. “For some people who say when they are dieting, ‘Oh, I always have this sweet tooth,’ it may be that something in their genetic makeup does cause them to need more sweetness than other people do in order to experience the same effect.”
She said the same applies to bitter as to sweet. Some people don’t eat vegetables because they have the genetic marker for tasting those stronger flavors in vegetables, or they have to cover them with cheese sauces and other things to reduce the bitterness.
There’s four diet types — regular, the Mediterranean diet, a low-fat diet and a low-carb diet,” Herman said. “And it will match your type to one of those diets, enabling you to lose weight and be healthier than you would if you just randomly picked a diet to try out. When you talk to people who diet you can see it in someone who says, ‘Well I lost 100 pounds on Atkins,’ and another person says, ‘I didn’t lose any.’ And it’s because they weren’t on their appropriate genetic match for them and so they did not do as well.”
Herman said it’s still an early science, but the future will be more and more about customizing patients’ care based on genetic markers such as these.
“We haven’t done a whole bunch because it isn’t covered by insurance,” she said. “But we’ve done about 20-30 people. And they’re all different. It’s amazing to see those differences and to watch their reactions when results show something they didn’t predict — for example, someone who thought they had a sweet tooth and finds out that’s not the case. Then we start looking at behavioral factors and ways to break cycles.”
To learn more about PathwayFit through FirstHealth of the Carolinas Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center, call 800-364-0499 or visit www.firsthealth.org.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.