SA is about two decades behind other countries in using genetic tests to optimize health care, say experts, who attribute this partly to medical aids demanding “copper-bottomed evidence” before accepting the science, and to big pathology labs that send genetic samples overseas, making it hard for local precision-medicine providers to reach economies of scale.
DNA, the code of life, can give insights into people’s unique traits and susceptibility to diseases, allowing them to protect their health by changing behaviors, personalizing their diets or making other lifestyle tweaks.
From cancer to mental illness, diabetes to dementia, genetic information can help to anticipate the body’s responses to diet, lifestyle, medications and other exposures.
But entrepreneurs and scientists told BusinessLIVE that other reasons for the slow uptake in South Africa included resistance from local doctors and a “profit-driven mindset” that focuses on curing disease rather than preventing it.
They believe, in fact, that the country is at least five years and as many as 20 years behind in adopting the treatment tools.
Danny Meyersfeld, founder of DNAlysis Biotechnology, with labs in Johannesburg and Helsinki, said 90% of his business was outside South Africa: “All the science is there; understanding it is just an investment in time.”
About 2 000 health-care practitioners have received DNAlysis’ nutrigenetic training – a requirement for using its tests in practice – which represents only about 7% of doctors in South Africa.
Kim Hulett, CEO of Next Biosciences, which specializes in genetic testing of embryos before selective in vitro fertilization, said selecting genetically healthy embryos for implantation can reduce the risk of babies being born with serious genetic disorders and can eliminate certain inherited diseases from being passed on to future generations.
Additionally, screening at birth allows for early identification of metabolic disorders, so babies can, if necessary, receive treatment to stave off disability or early death. This can save “hundreds of thousands” of rands in treatment down the line, she said.
Charles Faul, a molecular biologist with a background in computer science whose start-up, Akili Labs, “went big” in 2018, reinvested R30m to acquire more key stages in the supply chain of precision-medicine testing.
He said genetic medicine reduced a patient’s lifetime costs by early detection of a predisposition to diseases, but questioned whether there would be enough skilled geneticists in South Africa to allow local operations to reach economies of scale.
Yael Joffe, founder of 3X4 Genetics, a company that launched in South Africa and now has its headquarters in Seattle, USA, said: “Precision medicine will never succeed if left to medical aids. If personalized-medicine companies wait for the government, pharmaceutical companies, or medical aids to move things forward, South Africa will fall even further behind.”
Pathcare CEO John Douglass said economies of scale played a large part in genetic testing, with many overseas options able to offer more comprehensive tests at a lower price and with a similar turnaround time to those in South Africa, while an Ampath spokesperson said the company offered a clinical and laboratory genetics service in South Africa, and although it sends samples out of the country for testing, it “actively promotes and advocates for the development of genetics capabilities within South Africa”.