It was a tragic moment. Strong and robust Cameroonian international football star, Marc-Vivien Foé, collapsed and died on the pitch. The cause of death – hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the thickening of the muscle wall of the heart, caused by a change in genes, which makes it harder to pump blood. The heart simply stopped.
It is this kind of sporting damage and danger that the growing DNA industry is trying to fight. South African entrepreneur, Avi Lasarow, claims his DNA testing company, DNAFit, can save sporting careers.
“DNAFit at this point do not test anything that is diagnostic or negative. Our mission is to provide positive information for better health,” says Lasarow.
The company uses a mouth swab to test 50 gene variants linked to a body’s ability to respond to training and nutrition. Key genes linked to sporting performance, such as power, endurance, speed of recovery, susceptibility to injury and tolerance to food, like carbohydrates or saturated fats, are also researched. DNAFit then provides detailed reports on how to alter diet and exercise to fit genetic make-up.
“If you train to your genotype you can double your power and become better in what you do because you understand your body better. My vision is to work with African [sportsmen] to increase their medal count. I want to put Africa in a better position in terms of professional sport,” he says.
Although unaware of DNAFit, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Sports Scientist, Marc Booysen, says specific genes that regulate the structure of collagen (protein made up of amino acids) can be linked to an increased risk of injury, such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) rupture.
“Genetics can also determine how one responds to training loads, responders versus non-responders, or how an individual handles the acute effects of hypoxia (a condition where body tissues are not oxygenated adequately) when ascending to altitude,” says Booysen.
Lasarow says many careers have been lost to wrong diet or training.
Take former South African cricketer, Mfuneko Ngam, one of the most promising players to emerge from the dusty Eastern Cape province in South Africa. His career was cut short by injury.
“I did all the wrong things that had a huge negative impact on my career. I would train five times a week on a tar road. Because of my disadvantaged background, I had never gone to the gym or had a proper training program. I had so much passion but I overworked myself, which got me injured,” says Ngam.
“If I had the opportunity, I would have used a product like [DNAFit]. It would have given [us] direction on how to handle my training.”
Ngam now works as a development coach for Cricket South Africa, at the University of Fort Hare.
“We are given programs to train the kids with and just hope that everyone will get the same results from it but that is not always the case,” he says.
According to Lasarow, there is no one-size-fits-all in fitness and sporting prowess. The secret, he says, lies in DNA.
“All these hyped up media diets do not always work. If you train to your genotype, with our algorithm, you can double your performance. This helps teams to put up measures in place to protect members who have higher injury scores, take longer to heal or need specialized support to maximize their potential. This makes not just the athlete stronger but the whole team because they have the knowledge,” says Lasarow.
Zimbabwean born, British heavyweight boxer, Dereck Chisora, is one of Lasarow’s customers. He had a 29-second win over Beqa Lobjanidze last year. This marked his return to the ring after an eight-month absence, following a defeat by current heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury, in 2013.
“I had tried so many things and different trainings but when I did the DNA test and started working out and eating according to my genes, I started seeing a difference. My strength has massively increased. I have more hand speed and more power than I used to,” says Chisora.
Many others subscribe to this philosophy. Lasarow works with players at football clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Fulham; as well as 800-meter athlete Jenny Meadows; Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford; 400-meter runner Andrew Steele and 100-meter sprinter Craig Pickering.
DNAFit is also being used in a pilot project to help obese people shed weight after studies revealed those who go on a diet matched to their genes can lose up to 33%.
“One lady came to us because she couldn’t lose weight. She would go to the gym, lose a bit of weight but then pick it up again. When we did the test, we found that she had 95% power. Based on that, we put her on a weights training programme which is a lot more power based and she lost weight and it stayed that way,” says Lasarow.
Johannesburg dietician, Nathalie Mat, sounds a note of caution.
“I do not feel that it is appropriate to test every person that wants to start working out. The untrained body will benefit from population guidelines with regard to exercise and diet – these are designed to be appropriate for most of the population of a country. There are some people that may require additional changes to their training and/or diets but this should only be explored when the conventional approach fails and should be done under medical supervision,” says Mat.
Wits University’s Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Director, Demitri Constantinou, says DNAFit’s claims are overstated.
“Genes may be linked to muscles that are used for speed more than for endurance… So not all people with a ‘speed’ gene will be fast athletes, and not all athletes without it will be slow. We learn more as time goes on, and applying the true science of genetics is premature in predicting performance or as talent identification. Perhaps in time it will be one factor, among others, that will assist, but certainly not the one and be all,” says Constantinou.
Lasarow works in Greece, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, the UAE as well as South Africa.
According to Lasarow, sport is for entrepreneurs. He invested around $430,000 into his company and in two years it has become $14 million.
Lasarow was the first South African to be inducted into the City of London’s esteemed Guild of Entrepreneurs; the youngest Honorary Consul for South Africa in the UK; has won the Innovation of the Year award at the 2015 Lloyds Bank National Business Awards. In 2014, he was awarded the African Entrepreneur of the Year award at the African Enterprise Awards.
No guts no glory; people say about sport. Lasarow believes it is all in the genes.