Science for sale: Diet-based DNA testing veers into marketing
Welcome to the world of "translational science"
It is no longer enough for scientists to discover something, publish their findings and advance knowledge. These days they are also expected to translate that knowledge into economic activity.
Which brings me to the curious press release I received from the University of Toronto about diet-based DNA tests. The headline announced the good news: "Genetic testing for personalized nutrition leads to better outcomes."
It seemed curious because the scientist doing the research is also selling a diet-based DNA test.
A promotional video for the private company was attached to the news release. And the whole package was sent out by the university's strategic communications and marketing department, clearly stating that the company is a university spinoff, which means U of T receives royalties from the sale of the tests.
So is this finding about science? Or marketing? Or both?
Welcome to the new world of "translational science" where, increasingly, funding for basic science is tangled up in commercial strings as Ottawa ties its grants to research that will translate into commercial applications.
That means in order to get money to do their experiments, scientists have to declare how they can sell the thing they haven't even discovered yet.
It's an approach that the association representing Canada's university-based researchers has sharply criticized.
"The obsession with commercial outcomes has encouraged an emphasis on minor modifications to existing drugs and devices, rather than fundamental explorations of the causes of illness and the methods of prevention," the Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote earlier this year.
"This approach reflects a dangerously short-sighted and narrow view of science that ignores the history of scientific advances."
Genes for caffeine
In this new world, professors are pushed to file patents, universities boast about the number of private "spinoff" companies they create, and it is left to the old school academics to worry about what is being lost in the rush to commercialize.
In this case, nutrition scientist Ahmed El-Sohemy invented a DNA test based on his publicly funded research.
As all professors are encouraged to do, he used the university's "invention disclosure" process to develop a licensing agreement with the university. He then formed a for-profit company, which has marketed the test in over 22 countries.
The university doesn't have shares in the company, but it receives royalties. (The company is private which means there is no public disclosure about who owns its shares.)
There are other genetic tests in the market, but Nutrigenomix is different because it is sold exclusively through registered dietitians, even though El-Sohemy said business advisers told him he could increase market share faster if he sold it directly to consumers.
It's the risk of a conflict.- Christopher McCabe
For about $350 and a bit of saliva, you can find out if you have a handful of genes that are linked to the metabolism of salt, vitamin C, caffeine and other nutrients.
If you have the genes, you will be advised to eat more or less of the thing, which in turn, might reduce the risk of hypertension and other conditions.
Conflict of interest?
Will people change their behaviour if they know they have a genetic predisposition to metabolize caffeine too slowly? Does personalized DNA diet advice work?
El-Sohemy got a research grant from the federal government to try to find out.
His conclusion? Yes. That's the finding he published Friday and sent out to news organizations, along with a promotional video about Nutrigenomix Inc.
El-Sohemy discloses on the paper that he has shares in Nutrigenomix. He is also the company's founder and chief scientific officer, but said has never received any income from the company. "I disclosed the relevant financial conflict,” he told me.
El-Sohemy agreed that his research, published in PLOS One, does support the test he's selling. But he says that he is following as transparent a process as possible. The clinical trial was publicly registered. His research papers are in the public domain.
Still, if a university researcher does publicly funded research that appears to support the very test that he is now selling, is that a conflict of interest? And if the university earns royalties on the sale and promotes the research through its public relations department, is that a conflict of interest?
"It's the risk of a conflict," says University of Alberta health economist Christopher McCabe. But, he adds, "nobody here has knowingly misbehaved."
What the funder wants
El-Sohemy is doing exactly what he is supposed to do, and agreed to do when he accepted the grant, from an Industry Canada fund that supports research aimed at creating new commercial opportunities from biology-based technologies.
"If that's where the funding comes from and you're told by your funder you have to do these things, you'll do them," says McCabe.
It's called "technology transfer" and it's a now a fundamental part of Canadian university research.
"The world is changing," McCabe says. "So we find ourselves doing studies that support commercial organizations that some of us have an equity interest in."
The benefit for the economy is obvious. Public research is transmuted into private profit and the commercial engine chugs along. But the benefit to science is not so clear.
Does the commercial interest affect the kind of research being done? Are scientists asking questions that need to be answered? Or are they looking for answers they can sell, not necessarily for personal gain, but because that's the only way they can get any funding at all?
And what about the risk of research bias? Many studies have shown that research tied to industry tends to have outcomes that favour these same commercial interests.
In this case, El-Sohemy has concluded that DNA-based diet advice helps people change behaviour.
But except for a reduction in salt intake, none of his research subjects changed their behaviour when it came to sugar, caffeine or Vitamin C. That means the study showed no effect in three out of the four end points being measured.
What's more, there are critics who say this entire line of inquiry is not relevant, that we already know people don't stop unhealthy behaviour no matter whether the advice is based on DNA tests or other diagnosis.
That's what happens in science. People ask questions and argue over the answers. But some worry that, with research increasingly tied to commercial development, the wrong questions are being asked.