23andMe Will Add Weight-Loss Advice to Its DNA-Testing Services

(Bloomberg) -- Consumer DNA-testing giant 23andMe Inc. plans to add new wellness offerings it hopes will help its customers shed a few pounds, but some genetics experts say the jury is still out on the science behind the products.

On Tuesday, the Mountain View, California-based company announced a partnership with Lark Health, an artificial-intelligence coaching service that delivers personalized advice for weight loss and diabetes prevention via an app. Lark will allow customers to incorporate weight-related genetic data from 23andMe into its service.

“This was born from our desire to get our customers to do more with their genetics,’’ said Emily Drabant-Conley, vice president of business development at 23andMe.

The move will put 23andMe in a crowded -- and oft-criticized -- marketplace of companies that use DNA analysis to give personalized advice on wellness or family history. Believers herald the coming of a personalized-health revolution; critics contend that such tools haven’t yet been shown to provide something truly useful.

“The idea is good, but without the proof of peer-reviewed publications with prospective study, we have no knowledge whether these algorithms have any benefit,’’ said Eric Topol, a geneticist at Scripps Research Institute.

23andMe argues that it is simply using its data to make smarter a service that’s already popular and seemingly effective. In Lark’s wellness and diabetes-prevention programs, AI coaches help people track things like meals, exercise and sleep and serve up advice to help meet health goals. Users can message their AI coach to help them decide whether a burger was a good choice for dinner, for example. If their 23andMe genetic weight report suggested limiting red meat, the coach might recommend laying off the burgers.

“Genetics are really motivating,’’ Drabant-Conley said. “They’re personal, so people take suggestions more seriously.’’

23andMe has long been interested in turning its reports into actionable advice. Last January, the company kicked off a 100,000-person study to discern the link between DNA and success at dieting, with the aim of eventually providing personalized weight-loss advice.

More than two million people use Lark’s AI health coach. Its diabetes-prevention program is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and peer-reviewed research has suggested the AI coach is at least as effective as a human one.

“You get the facts in 23andMe’s report, but real behavior change is harder,’’ said Lark CEO Julia Hu. “What we did is to take the results, not just the markers but the intervention most relevant to a person, and serve it up at the right time.’’

Lark charges users a $19.99 monthly fee. For those that opt-in to sharing their genetic data, Lark’s apps will incorporate data from eight different 23andMe reports, including a weight profile of people with similar genetics, whether they have a heightened sense for bitter-tasting foods, or an associated tendency to sleep deeply.

The recommendations Lark will make based on DNA data are the sort of advice likely to be doled out to any dieter -- sleep more, eat healthier -- but the hope is that personalized counsel will make such suggestions more effective.

Topol said he’d like to see more research before signing on to the power of such personalized wellness advice.

“Until then, the value of this is completely unknown, uncertain. It could be the coaching turns out to be the same for all people instead of the idea it is individualized,’’ he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.