In the blood: How DNAFit is using gene testing to prepare Egypt for their World Cup return

Avi Lasarow, founder and chief executive of DNAFit, explains how the London-based company’s fitness and nutrition-based gene-testing is delivering bespoke training programmes for athletes, and how it is helping partners from Premier League clubs to the Egyptian Olympic Committee find success.

by Elena Holmes
In the blood: How DNAFit is using gene testing to prepare Egypt for their World Cup return

From a gene that determines the way different foods affect you, to one that predetermines an innate sprinting ability, our sporting capabilities may be written in our DNA. Avi Lasarow, the founder and chief executive of DNAFit, maintains that talent is determined 50 per cent by the environment and 50 per cent by genetics, and that the premise his company is built around is in providing athletes simply with the information they need to maximise their potential using that which they already have - those mysterious building blocks of life. 

The London-based firm has recently expanded a partnership with the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), and will use its gene testing to report on markers relating to fitness and nutrition to help inform the Egyptian players how best to train for their first Fifa World Cup since 1990 when they head to Russia this summer. DNAFit also penned an agreement with the Egyptian Olympic Committee (EOC) to do the same for the country’s athletes ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

As Lasarow (right) explains, DNAFit seeks to provide an insight into the right way to eat for your body - an area called nutrigenomics - and the right way to exercise for your body – or sportsgenomics. It arms athletes with this information, which Lasarow says can be the difference between no medal and a medal in any given sport. With all that in mind, SportsPro took a look at how the company is leveraging its technology to help clients find success on the sporting stage.

Can you explain how DNAFit works?

Coaches, managers and clubs are all looking to optimise performance and that’s being done increasingly through things like biomechanics and looking at nutrition, recovery and an environment with your coach where they show you how to be the best at what you can do. Over the last, say, 15 years, the cost of finding out how to best do this has rapidly gone down.

15 years ago, you would pay something like US$40,000 just to get a full genetic sequence. In recent years, the ability to do that genetic sequencing on an individual has come under US$1,000.

The area of preventative precision medicine around genetics has now become very well established and, similarly, there’s a rapid acceleration in understanding nutrition and fitness based on genetics.

To give you an example, I’ve had seven cups of coffee today and I feel pretty good and I will sleep well tonight. My wife, on the other hand, if she has coffee past 12 o’clock, gets a bit anxious and can’t sleep. That’s a great example of how your genetics will determine whether you’re a fast metaboliser of caffeine or not, based on a certain gene. And if you’re a fast metaboliser of caffeine, then an optimal amount can be preventative of heart health issues, whereas if you’re not, caffeine can give you an increased risk of heart health issues.

This can then be applied to the body, framing different forms of exercise, and the way that different variations of genes can influence you and your performance in sport. We basically curated a panel of genes associated to performance and endurance and made an algorithm.

Last year, we published in the Biology of Sport journal the first ever genetic exercise intervention study. We took 100 people and we put them on a double-blinded study involving a 12-week training intervention looking at explosive power measurements and endurance. We re-measured them at the end and found that the ones genetically matched to their training using our ‘power-endurance algorithm’ had a training intensity response three times better than those that weren’t.

Our testing allows you to understand your injury risk, if you’re fast at recovering from exercise or not, and how you respond to different nutrients and diets. For example, if you find you’re slow at recovering from exercise, a coach can look at giving players rests through a more personalised approach. One player might need more time off to get better results, whereas another person might need less time off and so on.

How have you seen your company grow?

As a company, we’ve tested over 50,000 people as consumers. We’ve been working with the EFA for the last 24 months or so. We have an office in Egypt and we originally started working with Martin Jol and Al Ahly, which is one of the top [soccer] clubs in Egypt.

Once they knew about our technology and once we started bringing our branding into people’s awareness at that level in the country, it became easier to have those discussions. And by having worked with some of the players already in the Premier League, your reputation in the sports world spreads quite quickly. Egypt were trying to get into the World Cup for the first time since 1990 and they needed any help they could get. We worked with them and gave them help, and they qualified. Once that was happening and people were seeing them have success, other federations in Eygpt became interested.

We did some work with the modern pentathlon team [the Egyptian Federation of Modern Pentathlon (EFMP)], and they started the conversation about genetics and sport going on at that level. Then the other week was a pretty big landmark for us when we signed with the Egyptian Olympic Committee. Now, we’re getting lots of interest at country level to collaborate with organisations and then also with other countries, because people don’t want to be left behind.

Egypt and Al Ahly player Mahmoud Hassan will use a DNAFit test to work out a bespoke training programme matched to his genetics

Why have you targeted partnerships in sport specifically, and what led you towards governing bodies and other rights-holders?

The professional sports are great for us because we get to do great research. My personal goal is to move the area of sports genetics forward. And so we use professional sportspeople and teams to start the conversation about sporting genetics.

We get access to organisations’ players, their teams, their direction, and they give us data anonymised so we can take the sport forward with our research. If you look at rugby for example, we’ve got a deal with Bryan Habana [South African and Toulon rugby union player], and we use a rugby genome database where we have the biggest number of rugby players globally, which means we can really grow to understand the sport like no one has ever been able to before. If an organisation wants to work with us, they’re going to get benefits, because they get information, and they get cutting-edge insights we can provide that no one else can.

Coming back to your partnerships in Egypt, are you able to talk about any specific ways you’ve been able to help Egyptian athletes?

We can look at everything from stress genetics to testosterone production. We even look at ‘mental toughness’. What we are mainly doing at the moment with the EFA is that on an individual level, we inform players of their training direction - I mentioned recovery, and injury prevention amongst other things.

We’re looking specifically at nutrition - micronutrient and macronutrient intake. It’s especially interesting to take into account their training schedule around Ramadan - they need extra help because they have to manage their intake and recovery very differently under those circumstances.

How accurate do you think the tests are? You explain that you’re testing for certain genetic markers, but what about ones you miss or overlook?

We have a scientific advisory board, which meets every quarter. Their mandate is to define what research we will undertake, and curate each step we choose and how we incorporate that into DNAFit. A lot of companies advise you to get your DNA data and your genotype and get this raw data, but the difference with us is how you interpret that data.

We have a scientifically comprehensive protocol whereby in terms of the pool of genes we interpret, we make sure each of those independently have at least been three times in peer-reviewed studies, have met a certain scientific threshold, before we include them in our own algorithm. We then create our own algorithms, for example, the power-endurance percentage. We are then able to make informed recommendations based on our research, and we have the research to back up what we say.

It’s a continuously evolving process, the science is moving very fast, and of course we seek to be the leader of our niche. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating thing because the more organisations work with us, then the more research we get, the more insight we get, and the more we can enhance our commercial operation off the back of that.

In the growing industry of fitness nutrition generally, there’s so much noise out there about what diet is best, what training is best, and we just cut through this noise and use sports as a way to do that.

Do you think it can ever be bad for athletes to know their own limitations?

I think we have a responsibility as a company whoever we work with to work out the best way to provide information to athletes. Anything that we provide new information on is something that is actionable and therefore something we can do something about.

At this point in time, we don’t claim to know what sports you’re predisposed to or what position you would be best at. We just make sure that the information we give people is done so responsibly in order to give people the best insight into how they can work with their results.

How do you see technology like yours reshaping sport in the future?

I think it will become a de facto standard; every sportsperson will do this test. A lot of top-level athletes have a lot of the information you get on day one through the test anyway, but it has taken them years to get there.

For example, Andrew Steele, who is our head of product here, was a 400m runner and was recently given a retrospective medal because of the Russian doping ban. He was in the Beijing Olympics, and did very well. He got back from the Olympics and his coach said to him that he didn’t train like a typical 400m runner. So he changed his training to go into typical 400m training, and he didn’t manage to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. Looking at Andrew’s genetics, we found that he was an exception to the majority of 400m runners we have in our database of anonymised data.

If Andrew had done a genetic test like this at the start of his career, he would have known how to train in a way that best suited him and he could perhaps have made the London Olympics. Basically, our technology helps leapfrog years and months of trial and error by helping you to know exactly what you need.

I think in the way Facebook stores your data, you will have your genetic profile with a Google-type company in the future, and they’ll give you preventative help and preventative medicine all based on your genetics.

What’s next for DNAFit?

We work with a number of professional Premier League clubs, but we haven’t yet worked at federation level in the UK, and we’d love to do that. We want to find a shareholder in a company, an A-lister in terms of football profile. And in general, we are targeting every Olympic organisation globally.

We want to lock down sports as quickly as we can - we want to be the company that people go to when they want to understand genetic information about a sport. Ultimately if you have this information - biomarkers, genetics, microbiomes - it pushes people to take ownership of why they do what they do. And taking ownership of that information leads to better outcomes of reaching your goals. In the growing industry of fitness nutrition generally, there’s so much noise out there about what diet is best, what training is best, and we just cut through this noise and use sports as a way to do that.