Personalised nutrition in Taiwan: Technology, affordability, and celebrity-backing driving consumer interest
TCI gene is a subsidiary of Taiwanese supplement firm TCI. It operates a gene lab and began providing gene testing and personalised nutrition services about five years ago, but it only noticed a jump in the number of customers in the recent three years.
Specifically, the number of customers is steadily on the rise for TCI Gene. The number of customers who went for gene testing grew 50% between this year and last year, while the growth was 30% between year 2016 and 2017.
Gene testing has contributed to more than 90% of the company's overall profit.
A reason was due to the high-profile mastectomy that US celebrity Angelina Jolie underwent after confirming that her risk of developing breast cancer was higher via gene testing, Dr Rebecca Chan, chief supervisor of TCI Gene’s nutrigenomic department told NutraIngredients-Asia.
“This is a piece of big news and has generated huge interest in (gene-testing) in Taiwan,” she said.
Nearly three-quarter (70%) of the customers who subscribe to gene testing are individuals in their 40s to 50s.
“These are the group of people who are starting to experience the symptoms and can afford the cost of follow-up consultation and treatment.
“It is also common to see couples taking the gene testing together, although females are more conscientious about the follow-up procedures.”
The gene testing starts from collecting oral swab from the customers. Analysis typically takes seven to 10 working days.
The analysis predicts the development of as many as 58 types of chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndromes, and 14 types of major cancers, such as lung, liver, breast, and lymphatic cancer.
“We focus on predicting the likelihood of developing chronic diseases because lifestyles and diet play a role in the development of these diseases. This also means that the diseases could be prevented via a change in diet and lifestyles.
“And people are also starting to develop these diseases at a younger age, which is why gene testing comes into place for disease prevention.”
Once the analysis is out, a doctor and nutritionist will go through the report with the customer and provide advice.
Depending on the results, customers will be provided with a mix of dietary supplements pills produced by the company.
A customer typically needs to consume six to eight types of supplements daily, as part of disease prevention or improving health.
The supplements prescribed are 100% botanical extracts, such as turmeric and ginseng.
Customers will need to consume the supplements daily and attend monthly follow-up consultations for one year.
Depending on results of the follow-up, the doctor may or may not prescribe a new set of supplements.
The genetic testing service is priced at NTD$30k, while the one year follow-up consultation and supply of supplements cost NTD$38k.
Chan added that while individuals with higher education tend to have a deeper knowledge of gene testing and personalised nutrition, “it is nonetheless not too difficult” for the general public to understand the concept either.
RNA tested too
As part of the monthly consultation, customers will need to undergo blood test (for testing of cholesterol and blood lipids) and even RNA tests to detect changes in their health, Chan said.
Unlike the DNA which is genetically determined, RNA is consistently changing and is affected by lifestyles and diets.
A change in the RNA precedes a change in protein expression, which means that RNA is useful in detecting the presence of abnormal protein expression – which is in turn, a signal of disease development.
“RNA test is particularly useful for detecting changes in liver and heart health. Once a change is detected, we can prescribe dietary supplements to improve the condition.”
Citing the case of a stomach cancer patient, she said that the patient was in a stable condition after undergoing operation and chemotherapy.
However, a RNA test conducted by the firm a few months later revealed abnormal changes. This enabled the patient to confirm a cancer relapse and receive treatment in time.
Sarcopenia, colon cancer…most common malaise
Sarcopenia and colon cancer were some of the most diseases commonly seen in Taiwan, Chan said.
“We know that a lack of calcium can lead to fracture, but in fact, muscle loss is also a cause as well, since we need muscle to support the body frame,” she said.
She said that authorities have already started to educate the public about sarcopenia.
On the other hand, she added that high blood glucose level and blood lipids were also common health problems in the country due to unhealthy dietary habits.
New ingredient each month
TCI and TCI Gene are producing new raw ingredient for its dietary supplements every month.
The ingredients are only sourced from plants.
To speed up R&D efforts, the firm has started to use an automated high-throughput screening bio-mining module this year.
The machine speeds up development of raw ingredients by 70 times, and since it could run 24 hours daily, Chan said that the machine was able to complete “a month’s worth of data mining tasks within one and a half days.”
The machine has completed data mining tasks for more than 50 types of ingredients from October last year till now.
The purpose of the machine is to find out how different botanical extracts can affect cells and gene expression.
It includes seven types of extraction and biotransformation processing, 100 lines of cell culture assessments, and 15 types of natural substance compound analyses. The firm had spent more than a year to develop the machine.
“We started to develop raw ingredients for dietary supplements from botanical extracts over ten years ago, and to speed up innovation process, we have created the automated data mining machine, and with this, we are launching a new raw ingredient each month.”
The process of developing a new raw ingredient typically takes one to three months, including conducting human clinical trials.
Till date, the firm has developed dietary supplements using raw ingredients made from buckwheat husk and mandarin orange.
She said that the firm mainly focused on studying plants native to Taiwan, although the firm would also study plants grown in other parts of the world.
“For example, my boss previously went to Thailand and observed the locals drinking a particular drink. The locals said it was for anti-aging but did not know the mechanisms behind. My boss took it back to Taiwan and we conducted a study to find out more about it.”
Each year, TCI devotes $6m into its R&D budget.