Picture: 123RF/Kateryna Kon
Picture: 123RF/Kateryna Kon

Covid-19 has taken global health care by storm, and is showing up weaknesses like never before. But it has also upped the popularity of gadgets such as fitness trackers, smart watches, pressure monitors, and smart scales, as well as niche tools such as pulse oximeters.

Consumers are also benefiting from other preventive health-care measures that bring cutting-edge tech to testing and treatment. A few years ago, DNAlysis introduced DNA health and diet testing locally for individuals to get tailored results on how best to prevent future diseases, by changing their diets and lifestyles.

Now a new gut microbiome test called Viome is available in SA for the first time, after its June launch in the US. Its CEO, Naveen Jain, believes it has the power to "digitise the human body".

Viome believes it is able to convert information about the microbes that exist in our gut to a digital form in the way of genetic code (of the microbiome), to analyse and understand the biochemical pathways in the body and how they may affect the body to create health or disease.

Jain says the world finally has the technology to allow for a molecular-level analysis of the gut.

"This deep understanding allows us to recommend to each individual why they should eat certain foods, and why they should avoid certain foods based on their own individual biology, with the goal to prevent and reverse chronic disease," he says.

As a distributing partner to Viome, Next Biosciences in SA is the first to bring a gut intelligence test to the local market. But its high price tag means this test is another tech innovation that will only benefit patients with deep pockets.

The kit costs R3,990, which includes shipping back to the US. The test analyses a stool sample and the results are uploaded on the Viome app, tied to a unique ID from the kit.

Speaking at the SingularityU Summit in SA recently, doctor and chief medical officer at Next Biosciences, Yvonne Holt, said: "It has been shown that the microbiome affects many diseases in our bodies, if not all, and if we can control that microbiome, perhaps this can lead to healthier humans."

Holt says testing provides an understanding of our microbiome’s composition and function. "With this knowledge, we can adjust our diets and ingest foods that will stimulate the healthy biochemical pathways in our bodies as opposed to those that stimulate the disease-causing pathways."

The results are interpreted by a health professional locally and via the Viome app. It yields a list of foods that you can eat, minimise or avoid. For example, influencer Misha Levin has dumped quinoa, broccoli and bananas, foods she would otherwise have indulged in almost daily. Victoria Tatham won’t be eating brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage or kombucha.

The feedback also includes metabolic scores, which "indicate the overall health of various aspects of your gut", says Holt. "The recommendations provided will be geared to improving these scores overall," says Holt. "The idea of a retest is to track these changes and identify exactly how your dietary recommendations have positively affected your overall gut health."

Both Levin and Tatham say they hope to retest in a couple of months to assess how changes to their diet has affected the microbiome in their gut.

Holt says microbiome tests are different to DNA tests. "DNA tests reveal what your body is predisposed to, not necessarily what is currently happening in your body. The microbiome test is more dynamic and focuses on the active microbes in your gut, what they are capable of digesting and gives a picture of how your body is currently functioning," says Holt.

So what does the medical fraternity make of this test?

Independent medical doctor Mary Atkinson, who is based at Longiva Medical Institute, a health and wellness clinic in Joburg, tells the FM she will recommend the test to her patients.

"DNA analysis and testing the microbiome are examples of functional tests which assist in identifying the root cause of illness or general health issues like fatigue, weight gain and chronic pain." The tests are patient-centric, she says, and are particularly helpful for people with chronic health conditions. The aim is to find an answer to the question "why is this patient ill or not thriving?"

Treatment doesn’t begin until the root cause of the illness is identified. "These tests empower and inform a personalised approach to the patient and contribute to better outcomes," says Atkinson. It helps inform better decision-making and could prevent chronic diseases later in life.

However, this new intersection of technology with health information carries privacy risks, says the World Economic Forum’s precision medicine lead Elissa Prichep, even though there are great benefits to be had from digital data — electronic health records, mobile applications, cloud storage and more.

"The identification of parties associated with ‘anonymous’ data becomes more likely as more sophisticated algorithms are developed; data that is secure and private today may not be so in the future."

Healthy individuals, she says, are amassing more and more data about themselves. Patients with chronic disease are also starting to rely on applications to track everything from sleep to environmental exposure and mood, but these are currently not used to increase insight for health and illness.

People need to take charge of their data, which should be used by third parties only if they explicitly agree to this.

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