I recently got on the scale to weigh myself, thinking I've got to eat better. With so many trendy diets today claiming to improve health, from Keto to Paleo to Whole30, it can be confusing to figure out what we should and shouldn't eat for optimal nutrition.
A number of companies are now selling the concept of "personalized" nutrition based on the genetic makeup of your individual gut bugs.
My next thought was: I've got to lose a few pounds.
Consider a weird factoid: In addition to my fat, skin, bone and muscle, I'm carrying around two or three pounds of straight-up bacteria. Like you, I am the host to trillions of micro-organisms that live in my gut and are collectively known as my microbiome. An explosion of research has occurred in the last decade to try to understand exactly how these microbial populations, which are unique to each of us, may influence our overall health and potentially even our brains and behavior.
Lots of mysteries still remain, but it is established that these "bugs" are crucial to keeping our body running smoothly, performing functions like stimulating the immune system, synthesizing important vitamins, and aiding digestion. The field of microbiome science is evolving rapidly, and a number of companies are now selling the concept of "personalized" nutrition based on the genetic makeup of your individual gut bugs. The two leading players are Viome and DayTwo, but the landscape includes the newly launched startup Onegevity Health and others like Thryve, which offers customized probiotic supplements in addition to dietary recommendations.
The idea has immediate appeal – if science could tell you exactly what to make for lunch and what to avoid, you could forget about the fad diets and go with your own bespoke food pyramid. Wondering if the promise might be too good to be true, I decided to perform my own experiment.
Last fall, I sent the identical fecal sample to both Viome (I paid $425, but the price has since dropped to $299) and DayTwo ($349). A couple of months later, both reports finally arrived, and I eagerly opened each app to compare their recommendations.
First, I examined my results from Viome, which was founded in 2016 in Cupertino, Calif., and declares without irony on its website that "conflicting food advice is now obsolete."
I learned I have "average" metabolic fitness and "average" inflammatory activity in my gut, which are scores that the company defines based on a proprietary algorithm. But I have "low" microbial richness, with only 62 active species of bacteria identified in my sample, compared with the mean of 157 in their test population. I also received a list of the specific species in my gut, with names like Lactococcus and Romboutsia.
But none of it meant anything to me without actionable food advice, so I clicked through to the Recommendations page and found a list of My Superfoods (cranberry, garlic, kale, salmon, turmeric, watermelon, and bone broth) and My Foods to Avoid (chickpeas, kombucha, lentils, and rice noodles). There was also a searchable database of many foods that had been categorized for me, like "bell pepper; minimize" and "beef; enjoy."
"I just don't think sufficient data is yet available to make reliable personalized dietary recommendations based on one's microbiome."
Next, I looked at my results from DayTwo, which was founded in 2015 from research out of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and whose pitch to consumers is, "Blood sugar made easy. The algorithm diet personalized to you."
This app had some notable differences. There was no result about my metabolic fitness, microbial richness, or list of the species in my sample. There was also no list of superfoods or foods to avoid. Instead, the app encouraged me to build a meal by searching for foods in their database and combining them in beneficial ways for my blood sugar. Two slices of whole wheat bread received a score of 2.7 out of 10 ("Avoid"), but if combined with one cup of large curd cottage cheese, the score improved to 6.8 ("Limit"), and if I added two hard-boiled eggs, the score went up to 7.5 ("Good").
Perusing my list of foods with "Excellent" scores, I noticed some troubling conflicts with the other app. Lentils, which had been a no-no according to Viome, received high marks from DayTwo. Ditto for Kombucha. My purported superfood of cranberry received low marks. Almonds got an almost perfect score (9.7) while Viome told me to minimize them. I found similarly contradictory advice for foods I regularly eat, including navel oranges, peanuts, pork, and beets.
Contradictory dietary guidance that Kira Peikoff received from Viome (left) and DayTwo from an identical sample.
To be sure, there was some overlap. Both apps agreed on rice noodles (bad), chickpeas (bad), honey (bad), carrots (good), and avocado (good), among other foods.
But still, I was left scratching my head. Which set of recommendations should I trust, if either? And what did my results mean for the accuracy of this nascent field?
I called a couple of experts to find out.
"I have worked on the microbiome and nutrition for the last 20 years and I would be absolutely incapable of finding you evidence in the scientific literature that lentils have a detrimental effect based on the microbiome," said Dr. Jens Walter, an Associate Professor and chair for Nutrition, Microbes, and Gastrointestinal Health at the University of Alberta. "I just don't think sufficient data is yet available to make reliable personalized dietary recommendations based on one's microbiome. And even if they would have proprietary algorithms, at least one of them is not doing it right."
There is definite potential for personalized nutrition based on the microbiome, he said, but first, predictive models must be built and standardized, then linked to clinical endpoints, and tested in a large sample of healthy volunteers in order to enable extrapolations for the general population.
"It is mindboggling what you would need to do to make this work," he observed. "There are probably hundreds of relevant dietary compounds, then the microbiome has at least a hundred relevant species with a hundred or more relevant genes each, then you'd have to put all this together with relevant clinical outcomes. And there's a hundred-fold variation in that information between individuals."
However, Walter did acknowledge that the companies might be basing their algorithms on proprietary data that could potentially connect all the dots. I reached out to them to find out.
Amir Golan, the Chief Commercial Officer of DayTwo, told me, "It's important to emphasize this is a prediction, as the microbiome field is in a very early stage of research." But he added, "I believe we are the only company that has very solid science published in top journals and we can bring very actionable evidence and benefit to our uses."
He was referring to pioneering work out of the Weizmann Institute that was published in 2015 in the journal Cell, which logged the glycemic responses of 800 people in response to nearly 50,000 meals; adding information about the subjects' microbiomes enabled more accurate glycemic response predictions. Since then, Golan said, additional trials have been conducted, most recently with the Mayo Clinic, to duplicate the results, and other studies are ongoing whose results have not yet been published.
He also pointed out that the microbiome was merely one component that goes into building a client's profile, in addition to medical records, including blood glucose levels. (I provided my HbA1c levels, a measure of average blood sugar over the previous several months.)
"We are not saying we want to improve your gut microbiome. We provide a dynamic tool to help guide what you should eat to control your blood sugar and think about combinations," he said. "If you eat one thing, or with another, it will affect you in a different way."
Viome acknowledged that the two companies are taking very different approaches.
"DayTwo is primarily focused on the glycemic response," Naveen Jain, the CEO, told me. "If you can only eat butter for rest of your life, you will have no glycemic response but will probably die of a heart attack." He laughed. "Whereas we came from very different angle – what is happening inside the gut at a microbial level? When you eat food like spinach, how will that be metabolized in the gut? Will it produce the nutrients you need or cause inflammation?"
He said his team studied 1000 people who were on continuous glucose monitoring and fed them 45,000 meals, then built a proprietary data prediction model, looking at which microbes existed and how they actively broke down the food.
Jain pointed out that DayTwo sequences the DNA of the microbes, while Viome sequences the RNA – the active expression of DNA. That difference, in his opinion, is key to making accurate predictions.
"DNA is extremely stable, so when you eat any food and measure the DNA [in a fecal sample], you get all these false positives--you get DNA from plant food and meat, and you have no idea if those organisms are dead and simply transient, or actually exist. With RNA, you see what is actually alive in the gut."
More contradictory food advice from Viome (left) and DayTwo.
Note that controversy exists over how it is possible with a fecal sample to effectively measure RNA, which degrades within minutes, though Jain said that his company has the technology to keep RNA stable for fourteen days.
Viome's approach, Jain maintains, is 90 percent accurate, based on as-yet unpublished data; a patent was filed just last week. DayTwo's approach is 66 percent accurate according to the latest published research.
Natasha Haskey, a registered dietician and doctoral student conducting research in the field of microbiome science and nutrition, is skeptical of both companies. "We can make broad statements, like eat more fruits and vegetables and fiber, but when it comes to specific foods, the science is just not there yet," she said. "I think there is a future, and we will be doing that someday, but not yet. Maybe we will be closer in ten years."
Professor Walter wholeheartedly agrees with Haskey, and suggested that if people want to eat a gut-healthy diet, they should focus on beneficial oils, fruits and vegetables, fish, a variety of whole grains, poultry and beans, and limit red meat and cheese, as well as avoid processed meats.
"These services are far over the tips of their science skis," Arthur Caplan, the founding head of New York University's Division of Medical Ethics, said in an email. "We simply don't know enough about the gut microbiome, its fluctuations and variability from person to person to support general [direct-to-consumer] testing. This is simply premature. We need standards for accuracy, specificity, and sensitivity, plus mandatory competent counseling for all such testing. They don't exist. Neither should DTC testing—yet."
Meanwhile, it's time for lunch. I close out my Viome and DayTwo apps and head to the kitchen to prepare a peanut butter sandwich. My gut tells me I'll be just fine.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.