Although there are healthcare providers who see the potential in microbiome testing, many clinical laboratories are not yet ready to embrace microbiome-based testing
In an unlikely string of events, no less than Nordstrom, the national department store chain, announced in September that it would offer microbiome-based test claimed to “check gut health.” Apparently, its customers were interested in this clinical laboratory test, as the Nordstrom website currently indicates that the “Health Intelligence Test Kit by Viome” is already sold out!
What does it say about consumer interest in clinical laboratory self-testing that Nordstrom has decided to offer at-home microbiome tests to its store customers? Can it be assumed that Nordstrom conducted enough marketing surveys of its customers to determine: a) that they were interested in microbiome testing; and b) they would buy enough microbiome tests that Nordstrom would benefit financially from either the mark-up on the tests or from the derived goodwill for meeting customer expectations?
Whatever the motivation, the retail giant recently announced it had partnered with Viome Life Sciences to sell Viome’s microbiome testing kits to its customers online, and in 2022, at some Nordstrom retail locations. These tests are centered around helping consumers understand the relationship between their microbiome and nutrition.
Pathologists and clinical laboratories will want to track Nordstrom’s success or failure in selling microbiome-based assays to its consumers. Microbiomics is in its infancy and remains a very unsettled area of diagnostics. Similarly, Viome, a self-described precision health and wellness company that conducts mRNA analysis at scale, will need to demonstrate that its strategy of developing precision medicine diagnostics and therapeutics based on the human microbiome has clinical relevance.
Helping Consumers with ‘Precision Nutrition’
In a September news release, Viome founder and CEO Naveen Jain, a serial entrepreneur, said, “Both Viome and Nordstrom believe that true health and beauty start from within. There is no such thing as a universal healthy food or healthy supplement. What is right for one person can be wrong for someone else, especially when it comes to nutrition which is key to human longevity and vitality. Precision nutrition is the future!”
If you are not familiar with the term “Precision Nutrition” here’s how Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health describes it: “Precision nutrition may sound like a new fad diet, but it is actually a credible emerging area of research supported by the National Institutes of Health under the umbrella of precision medicine.
“Precision medicine seeks to improve the personalized treatment of diseases, and precision nutrition is specific to dietary intake. Both develop interventions to prevent or treat chronic diseases based on a person’s unique characteristics like DNA, race, gender, health history, and lifestyle habits. Both aim to provide safer and more effective ways to prevent and treat disease by providing more accurate and targeted strategies.
“Precision nutrition assumes that each person may have a different response to specific foods and nutrients, so that the best diet for one individual may look very different than the best diet for another.
“Precision nutrition also considers the microbiome, trillions of bacteria in our bodies that play a key role in various daily internal operations. What types and how much bacteria we have are unique to each individual. Our diets can determine which types of bacteria live in our digestive tracts, and according to precision nutrition the reverse is also true: the types of bacteria we house might determine how we break down certain foods and what types of foods are most beneficial for our bodies.”
Medical Laboratory Testing, not Guessing
Viome Life Sciences is a microbiome and RNA analysis company based in Bellevue, Wash. The test kit that Nordstrom is selling is called the Health Intelligence Test. It is an at-home mRNA test that can provide users with some insights regarding their health. Consumers use the kit to collect blood and fecal samples, then return those samples to Viome for testing.
In a press release announcing its collaboration with Nordstrom, Viome said, “In a world overwhelmed by information relating to diet and supplement advice, Viome believes in testing, not guessing and empowering its users with actionable insights. To date, Viome has helped over 250,000 individuals improve their health through precision nutrition powered by microbial and human gene expression insights.”
Nordstrom began offering Viome’s Health Intelligence Test kit for $199 on its website starting in September. As of this writing and noted above, the kits are sold out. Nordstrom plans to stock the kit in select stores starting in 2022.
Individuals who purchase the test submit blood and stool samples to Viome’s lab which performs an analysis of gene activity patterns in the user’s cells and microbiome. Viome provides the results to consumers within two to three weeks.
“This partnership is a giant step towards making our technology more accessible, so people can understand what’s right for their unique body,” Jain said in the news release. “We are inspired each day by the incredible changes our customers are seeing in their health including improvements in digestion, weight, stress, ability to focus, and more.”
According to the news release, Viome conducted blind studies earlier this year that revealed significant successes based on their precision nutritional approach to wellness. Study participants, Viome claims, improved their outcomes to four diseases through nutrition:
- Depression (reduced by 32%)
- Anxiety Disorders (reduced by 40%)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) (reduced by 36%), and
- Type 2 Diabetes (reduced by 30%)
Is Microbiome Diagnostics Testing Ready for Clinical Use?
Microbiomics is a relatively new field of diagnostics research. Much more research and testing will be needed to prove its clinical value and efficacy in healthcare diagnostics. Nevertheless, companies are offering microbiomics testing to consumers and that has some healthcare providers concerned.
In the GeekWire article, David Suskind, MD, a gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, described Viome’s study methodology as “questionable,” adding, “I think this is a very interesting and exciting space and I do think there are definite potential implications, down the road. [However] we are not there in terms of looking at microbiome and making broad recommendation for individuals, as of yet.”
Will at-home clinical laboratory testing kits that analyze an individual’s microbiome someday provide data that help people lead healthier lives and ward off diseases? That’s Jain’s prediction.
In an article published in Well+Good, Jain said, “COVID-19 has, of course, been such a dark time, but one positive that did come from it is that more people are taking control of their own health. I really believe that the future of healthcare will be delivered not at the hospital, but at home.”
If this collaboration between Nordstrom and Viome proves successful, similar partnerships between at-home diagnostics developers and established retail chains may become even more common. And that should be on the radars of pathologists and clinical laboratories.