Brittany Barreto first got the idea to make a DNA-based dating platform nearly 10 years ago when she was in a college seminar on genetics. She joked that it would be called GeneHarmony.com.
Pheramor and startups, like DNA Romance and Instant Chemistry, both based in Canada, claim to match you to a romantic partner based on your genetics.
The idea stuck with her while she was getting her PhD in genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, and in March 2018, she launched Pheramor, a dating app that measures compatibility based on physical chemistry and what the company calls "social alignment."
"I wanted to use genetics and science to help people connect more. Our world is so hungry for connection," says Barreto, who serves as Pheramor's CEO.
With the direct-to-consumer genetic testing market booming, more and more companies are looking to capitalize on the promise of DNA-based services. Pheramor and startups, like DNA Romance and Instant Chemistry, both based in Canada, claim to match you to a romantic partner based on your genetics. It's an intriguing alternative to swiping left or right in hopes of finding someone you're not only physically attracted to but actually want to date. Experts say the science behind such apps isn't settled though.
For $40, Pheramor sends you a DNA kit to swab the inside of your cheek. After you mail in your sample, Pheramor analyzes your saliva for 11 different HLA genes, a fraction of the more than 200 genes that are thought to make up the human HLA complex. These genes make proteins that regulate the immune system by helping protect against invading pathogens.
It takes three to four weeks to get the results backs. In the meantime, users can still download the app and start using it before their DNA results are ready. The app asks users to link their social media accounts, which are fed into an algorithm that calculates a "social alignment." The algorithm takes into account the hashtags you use, your likes, check-ins, posts, and accounts you follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The DNA test results and social alignment algorithm are used to calculate a compatibility percentage between zero and 100. Barreto said she couldn't comment on how much of that score is influenced by the algorithm and how much comes from what the company calls genetic attraction. "DNA is not destiny," she says. "It's not like you're going to swab and I'll send you your soulmate."
Despite its name, Pheramor doesn't actually measure pheromones, chemicals released by animals that affect the behavior of others of the same species. That's because human pheromones have yet to be identified, though they've been discovered throughout the animal kingdom in moths, mice, rabbits, pigs, and many other insects and mammals. The HLA genes Pheramor analyzes instead are the human version of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a gene group found in many species.
The connection between HLA type and attraction goes back to the 1970s, when researchers found that inbred male mice preferred to mate with female mice with a different MHC rather than inbred female mice with similar immune system genes. The researchers concluded that this mating preference was linked to smell. The idea is that choosing a mate with different MHC genes gives animals an evolutionary advantage in terms of immune system defense.
The couples who had more dissimilar HLA types reported a more satisfied sex life and satisfied partnership, but it was a small effect.
In the 1990s, Swiss scientists wanted to see if body odor also had an effect on human attraction. In a famous experiment known as the "sweaty T-shirt study", they recruited 49 women to sniff sweaty, unwashed T-shirts from 44 men and put each in a box with a smelling hole and describe the odors of every shirt. The study found that women preferred the scents of T-shirts worn by men who were immunologically different from them compared to men whose HLA genes were similar to their own.
"The idea is, if you are very similar with your partner in HLA type then your offspring is similar in terms of HLA. This reduces your resistance against pathogens," says Illona Croy, a psychologist at the Technical University of Dresden who has studied HLA type in relation to sexual attraction in humans.
In a 2016 study Pheramor cites on its website, Croy and her colleagues tested the HLA types of 250 couples—all of them university students—and asked them how satisfied they were with their partnerships, with their sex lives, and with the odors of their partners. The couples who had more dissimilar HLA types reported a more satisfied sex life and satisfied partnership, but Croy cautions that it was a small effect. "It's not like they were super satisfied or not satisfied at all. It's a slight difference," she says.
Croy says we're much more likely to choose a partner based on appearance, sense of humor, intelligence and common interests.
Other studies have reported no preference for HLA difference in sexual attraction. Tristram Wyatt, a zoologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K. who studies animal pheromones, says it's been difficult to replicate the original T-shirt study. And one of the caveats of the original study is that women who were taking birth control pills preferred men who were more immunologically similar.
"Certainly, we learn to really like the smell of our partners," Wyatt says. "Whether it's the reason for choosing them in the first place, we really don't know."
Wyatt says he's skeptical of DNA-based dating apps because there are many subtypes of HLA genes, meaning there's a fairly low chance that your HLA type and your romantic partner's would be an exact match, anyway. It's why finding a suitable match for a bone marrow transplant is difficult; a donor's HLA type has to be the same as the recipient's.
"What it means is that since we're all different, it's hard statistically to say who the best match will be," he says.
DNA-based dating apps haven't yet gone mainstream, but some people seem willing to give them a try. Since Pheramor's launch a little over a year ago, about 10,000 people have signed up to use the app, about half of which have taken the DNA test, Barreto says. By comparison, an estimated 50 million people use Tinder, which has been around since 2012, and about 40 million people are on Bumble, which was released in 2014.
In April, Barreto launched a second service, this one for couples, called WeHaveChemistry.com. A $139 kit includes two genetic tests, one for you and your partner, and a detailed DNA report on your sexual compatibility.
Unlike the Phermor app, WeHaveChemistry doesn't provide users with a numeric combability score but instead makes personalized recommendations based on your genetic results. For instance, if the DNA test shows that your HLA genes are similar, Barreto says, "We might recommend pheromone colognes, working out together, or not showering before bed to get your juices running."
Despite her own research on HLA and sexual compatibility, Croy isn't sure how knowing HLA type will help couples. However, some researchers are doing studies on whether HLA types are related to certain cases of infertility, and this is where a genetic test might be very useful, says Croy.
"Otherwise, I think it doesn't matter whether we're HLA compatible or not," she says. "It might give you one possible explanation about why your sexual life isn't as satisfactory as it could be, but there are many other factors that play a role."
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.