SA scientist turns molecular tech into revolutionary, accessible health care

CAPE TOWN — How often have you found yourself going, “I wish I’d thought of that?” Especially when a simple tweak to an existing concept was all that was required to make the innovator both famous and rich. Well in this case that holds – with just one caveat. The disruptive, Johannesburg-based inventor, Dr Danny Meyersfeld, has a PhD in Molecular Biology. He tweaked existing high-tech identification of genetic variations in individual human beings to make revolutionary preventative healthcare available to ordinary GP’s and their patients. His multi-billion-dollar business has gone global and enables you and I to take DNA tests for weight management, chronic disease risk management, athletic performance, diet, skin care and much more. You see, your genes determine everything about you: from eye colour to the risk for certain diseases. Personalised medicine gives doctors the tools to highlight an individual’s genetic makeup and use this to laser-beam treatment. Light years ahead of meta-analyses that aggregate data to create crude ‘one-size fits all’ treatments. This new approach has turbo-boosted effective cancer treatment, for example. Talk about simple, cool value-add. Wonderful advert not only for specialised education, but for a social-problem-solving approach creating great business. Read just how Meyersfeld reached his stellar launch pad. – Chris Bateman

By Gerard Finnemore*

It sounds like it could be a first semester MBA syndicate project. You are to design a company with limited capital that disrupts a traditionally conservative sector such that within a few years, global leaders in the field have taken note and are using the service. Tall order. And yet, this is exactly the story of Johannesburg-based DNAlysis whose genetic reports are now used in 30 different countries around the world.

Gerard Finnemore
Gerard Finnemore

Founder Dr Danny Meyersfeld had intended to become a doctor. But life had other plans and he found himself one afternoon in 2005 in a Witwatersrand University lecture theatre listening to a presentation by Roche Pharmaceuticals. The same year he had completed his PhD in Molecular Biology and was at the time engaged with post-doctoral research.

Roche was presenting new, high throughput technology that was able to identify genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which yield valuable healthcare information. He recalls thinking how beneficial it would be if local doctors had access to that information.

Not dissimilar thinking was happening in other parts of the developed world. The practice of functional medicine and the new science of genetics and nutrigenomics were coming alive. Some background context is important here.

Functional medicine is a form of personalised medicine that attempts to identify the root cause of symptoms for sustained healing. It’s the medicine of ‘why’: why is this symptom occurring now and in this way? And using that information to heal holistically. Many different types of healthcare providers are moving to functional medicine.

So what’s the connection to genetic variations or SNPs? As an example, many will have heard of the neurotransmitter called dopamine and how it influences mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration, and motor control.

There’s a gene called COMT where variations will directly affect levels of dopamine in the brain. Knowing a person’s COMT SNPs will of necessity affect a person’s behaviour and the way healthcare is delivered.

Nutrigenomics is the science of how nutrients from food alter the expression of different genes. Food, supplements and lifestyle choices can support the levels of dopamine in the brain and hence behaviour.

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It was against this background that Danny Meyersfeld took the plunge and invested a relatively modest, family-sourced sum of money back in 2006. DNAlysis was registered in 2007 and the first paying customer received a report in March 2008 with analysis done via a lab in Europe.

The early years were spent developing both the local facility and reporting styles as well as educating local doctors. However, much ground was gained when focus was extended to dieticians with whom nutrigenomics was a natural fit.

Towards the end of 2013, by chance Danny met an equally passionate health care provider at a Functional Medicine conference in Cape Town.

Chris Moore had set up Nordic Laboratories in Denmark some years before. The company offers a range of state-of-the-art assessments for functional medicine providers in the area of food allergies, chronic fatigue, hormonal dysfunction, autism, gastrointestinal conditions, detoxification, genetics, and cardiovascular problems.

At that time DNAlysis had just added Sport and Oestrogen to their existing Diet and Health Reports. Nordic were working with the cycling Team Saxobank, optimising their physiology for the Tour de France. The whole team did the DNAlysis Sport report which was used to perfect their training and nutritional schedules.

DNAlysis and Nordic was a natural fit and they set up a joint venture called DNAlife in 2015. As such, DNAlysis became the supplier of genetic tests for most European countries serviced by Nordic Laboratories. They have subsequently expanded their services to customers in the USA, Middle East, Asia and Australia.

The model used by DNAlysis is to work only through qualified health care providers, as opposed to the direct-to-consumer model used by 23andme and others in the USA and elsewhere.

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Indeed, it’s one thing to test genes but quite another to transform the information into beneficial health outcomes. This is the area where Danny and his development team of Helen Gautschi and Sasha Mannion Maggs have clearly excelled. Only SNPs which have rigorous research backing are used. The results are then ‘organised’ according to their own algorithms and presented in a way that makes the data easy for a health care provider to use with patients. In fact, there are now genetic testing companies both in the USA and Europe that are licensing this intellectual property from DNAlysis for their own genetic reporting.

But arguably the most impressive endorsement comes from Dr Mark Hyman, head of the Functional Medicine Unit at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio where there is a nine-month waiting list from patients all over the world wanting to get the kind of health care outcomes they consistently achieve. He said DNAlysis Health reports are “…a great option to individualise your approach to optimise your health ….it tells us what to do, what nutrients to give you, what form of the nutrients, how much to give you, so it’s really helpful”.

From the initial team of three employees, there are now 15 working from their ISO accredited laboratory in Johannesburg. Last year they created nearly 20,000 reports for clients in countries as diverse as Sweden, New Zealand, Peru, United Kingdom and the USA. They have offices in London, Denmark and Finland.

Far from being satisfied with what has been achieved to date, Danny believes that they are only scratching the surface in terms of the potential market for genetic testing. “It is an exciting time because we are learning so much all the time and are finally seeing acceptance of these tests by the mainstream medical community. We are working on projects now that will result in the seamless integration of genetic tests into clinical medicine, enabling early identification of risk markers, personalised intervention strategies and enhanced health outcomes,” he said. In plain English, that means better diagnosis and treatment.

I couldn’t resist asking someone at DNAlysis what Danny is like as a boss. She answered “it’s never felt like he’s a boss, he’s just part of the team”. As any MBA student can tell you, it’s all just a case of both doing things right and doing the right things.

  • Gerard Finnemore started life as a copywriter but made a career change in his 40s to a clinical psychologist. He currently has a private practice in Parktown North, Johannesburg.