Genetic analysis unlocks the code as GeekWire staffer makes progress in quest to transform health

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Daniel Rossi, GeekWire’s chief business officer, is in the second month of a year-long quest to transform his health through cutting-edge science. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

What if, after 38 years on the planet, someone handed you a secret code that explained why you are the way you are, and helped you interpret the code to make yourself as healthy as possible? That’s how Daniel Rossi, GeekWire’s chief business officer, felt after seeing his genetic analysis.

SPECIAL SERIES: Follow this GeekWire staffer as he reprograms his health, starting with his genes

“We knew what was wrong with me, and what we needed to fix. We just didn’t know why,” Daniel said. Knowing the genetic results, he explained, “I can understand the why behind getting out of bed in the morning and going to the gym, the why behind carefully planning my week out on Sunday, when I go to the grocery store and start chopping up vegetables. That’s pretty important to me.”

In this year-long series, GeekWire is chronicling Daniel’s quest to transform his health using the latest in science and technology. It’s now month two, and the first big moment has arrived: Daniel’s initial genetic results are helping to adjust his approach and confirm the importance of the changes he had already started to make through the Arivale scientific wellness program. We’ll explore and explain some of his key genetic results in this installment.

But first, an early glimmer of hope: Since our first report, Daniel has lost about 5 pounds, dropping from 258 pounds to less than 253 pounds over the past month. But another number is looking even better. His blood-sugar has declined from 143 to 124 mg/dL over the same time period — an encouraging sign of progress in his fight against Type 2 Diabetes, a primary objective of his effort to overhaul his health.

Daniel has accomplished this through a combination of regular exercise and strategic changes in his diet, with help from his Arivale coach, registered dietitian and nutritionist Ginger Hultin.

Overall, he has reduced his caloric intake from 2800 to 2200 per day, by avoiding saturated fat and reducing or eliminating pizza and other fast foods while increasing his consumption of veggies and whole grains. He’s also balancing each meal and snack with complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy unsaturated fat.

He’s staying away from the taqueria across the street from the GeekWire office, and and instead packing his lunch. One this week consisted of a salad of arugula, turkey ham, quinoa, almond slivers, hard parmesan cheese, cherry tomatoes and an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing, along with a bowl of homemade soup with turkey, broth and vegetables, and a low-sugar, high-protein yogurt.

Daniel Rossi enjoys his lunch this week in the GeekWire office.

At the office, he has made what he describes as his one “diva request” — a steady supply of LaCroix flavored sparking water.

When peering into the fridge in the throes of a late-night sugar craving, he has been opting for apples and oranges to satisfy his sweet tooth.

He’s exercising religiously, waking up early to walk Seattle’s Green Lake or hit the gym for weightlifting, boxing or cardio six days per week.

And now he knows what’s going on with his genes.

Daniel’s first genetic analysis

A small portion of the genetic analysis from Daniel Rossi’s Arivale dashboard.

First, the results confirmed that Daniel does, in fact, have genetic variants associated with increased risk of diabetes.

For example, the analysis of his PPARG gene, which is involved in the regulation of glucose and fats in the blood, found that he has two copies of the C allele (one from each parent), which is associated with decreased insulin sensitivity and higher diabetes risk. He also has one copy of the A allele of the FTO gene, which has a strong association with body mass index and a higher risk of obesity and has also been shown to increase the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

So what does this mean in practice? Prior to Daniel starting on the Arivale program, his physician suggested he start eating more fat to help balance out his blood sugar, which made sense in general terms, but Daniel had implemented this recommendation by drinking two to three cups of whole milk a day — not a good idea for someone whose genes, as it turns out, make him predisposed to gaining weight through a diet high in saturated fats.

The solution: balancing carbohydrates with healthier, monounsaturated fats in Daniel’s snacks and meals, to balance out his blood sugar without the saturated fat he was getting from the milk. For example, Coach Ginger recommended that Daniel bring to work a snack of sliced veggies and hummus, which provides fiber and the healthy types of fats that will help to balance out his blood sugar.

In addition, the genetic analysis of the FTO gene — showing one copy of the harmful variant of the gene — confirmed that exercise will be a big factor in transforming his health. Research has shown that people who have this variant have been shown to fare much better in reducing their diabetes risk when they significantly increase their physical activity.

In other words, it’s more motivation for Daniel to wake up early to exercise and get his steps in.

Heart health is another big focus of Daniel’s quest, and there his genes unlocked a secret, as well. His cholesterol and LDL blood test results had come in high. He also has a moderately high level of homocysteine, indicating a higher potential risk of heart disease. Daniel’s genetic results showed a disposition for lower activity of the MTHFR enzyme, associated with the metabolism of the B vitamin folate, which can result in lower folate levels and increased homocysteine.

This was a relatively easy fix: a multivitamin that ensures he gets good levels of an active form of folate.

All of these are examples of Arivale’s approach: focusing on genes that can work in conjunction with lifestyle or nutritional factors to make a meaningful impact on a person’s wellness. The company doesn’t focus on medical genetic markers, such as genetic variants known to be associated with a high risk of cancer.

“Individually, these lifestyle and nutritional genes have, for the most part, a small effect in terms of their overall contribution to risk. However, when an individual has inherited a number of variants and that is combined with an unhealthy lifestyle — it can be really magnified in terms of the outcome,” said Dr. Jennifer Lovejoy, the company’s chief translational science officer. “We’re always looking at the genes in the context of the blood data that we get and in the context of lifestyle to see how those things interact to potentially determine a risk.”

Motivation to make a change

Of course, it’s one thing to know all these things about how your your body, and another thing to actually make the changes. But Daniel is sticking to the program — tracking his food intake, keeping his activity up, and completing his daily checklist in the Arivale dashboard.

A selfie in motion at the gym.

Apart from the personal reasons for making the change — the chance to live a healthier, happier, longer life — Daniel is drawing extra motivation from the attention being created by this special series, which has put him and his quest into the public eye.

Daniel regularly attends industry events as part of his job at GeekWire, and since we started writing about his quest, people regularly come up to him and offer words of encouragement or empathy with his situation. At one recent event, he skipped the tray of cured meat and cheese, and went for option of tofu cube appetizers instead.

“There are a lot of folks who are cheering me on,” he said. “It’s helping me behave.”

In the meantime, he’s using his wicked sense of humor to navigate the GeekWire office environment, where holiday treats and temptations abound. “I’ll be the dork eating veggies,” he wrote in response to a message about a team meeting where there would be food.

And when some other GeekWire staffers showed up to the office one recent morning, they found several packages of cookies in the break room mysteriously rearranged to spell out “FU.” No one has officially claimed responsibility for the incident.

NEXT: Daniel Rossi gets a high-tech body scan

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