What Is Helix?

By Derek Lakin
HighYa Staff Published on: Oct 2, 2017

After sequencing your DNA from a small saliva sample, Helix partners with a variety of third-party companies to help you discover more about yourself, as well as make better-informed decisions about your life. Together, this is why they claim to represent “a source for DNA learning.”

Basically, the process works like this: After placing an order, you’ll receive a DNA collection kit that will take just a few minutes complete. Then, once the company receives your sample, their world-class laboratory uses advanced sequencing technology (called Exome+) to “read” your DNA and unlock 100X more data than other companies.

Helix then securely stores your data and shares it only with the partner(s) of your choice, which includes ancestry, entertainment, family, fitness, health, and nutrition services—all of which are reviewed by Helix’s expert team of PhDs and geneticists. And if you want to work with more than one partner, you’ll never have to submit another saliva sample.

Granted, there’s no doubt that unlocking our genetic code could help us make more informed choices and decisions about our health, fitness, and nutrition, as claimed on the Helix website. But is this necessarily what you’ll get with the company’s partners?

Over the years, the HighYa team has researched many of the most popular genetic testing companies. Here, we’ll gather what we’ve learned to help you make a more informed decision about Helix.

How Does DNA Sequencing Work?

We’re not here to deliver a science lesson, but some basic knowledge can go a long way toward fully understanding what Helix might be able to offer.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is made up of thousands of pairs of four different nitrogen bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). The order in which these bases assemble form into long chains called genes, which are tightly packed inside structures called chromosomes; half of which you inherit from your mother, and the other half from your father.

Genes directly impact how the proteins in your body behave, which is important in just about every aspect of our existence.

Recently, the National Human Genome Research Institute reports that technology has advanced to a point where the order of these four bases (A, T, G, C) can be determined, which can tell “scientists the kind of genetic information that is carried in a particular DNA segment.”

For example, “scientists can use sequence information to determine which stretches of DNA contain genes and which stretches carry regulatory instructions, turning genes on or off. In addition, and importantly, sequence data can highlight changes in a gene that may cause disease.”

In a nutshell, this is what Helix does. Their CLIA-certified laboratory reads the base pairs in your DNA, which is extracted from a saliva sample. Then, if you choose to purchase a service through one of their partners, these third-party companies will ‘read’ the data generated by Helix, and translate this data into actionable information.

Which Partner Products Are Offered Through Helix?

By partnering with other companies, Helix offers access to six different service categories:

Ancestry Services

  • Neanderthal by Insitome: This service promises to help you “discover which of your unique traits may have been inherited from [y]our Neanderthal ancestors,” including ones like “skin pigmentation, sun damage repair, torso shape, learning, fat storage, high-altitude adaptation, interpreting immune signals, pathogen recognition, viral immune response, and muscle growth and development.”

  • Geno 2.0 Next Generation by National Geographic: This test allows you to learn about your regional ancestral makeup by percentage (as far back as 200,000 years), as well as where your ancient ancestors lived and the migration paths they followed (including a Neanderthal ancestry analysis, as outlined above). This also involves videos, articles, and illustrations. You’ll even be able to learn which historical geniuses you might be related to.

Entertainment

  • Wine Explorer by Vinome: By combining DNA analysis with your taste preferences, this Helix partner promises to help you “discover hard-to-find, curated wine recommendations.” Then, you’ll be able to rate and review the wines you try, which will better impact your future selections in the Vinome wine store, so that each bottle matches you.

  • StartLine by DNAFi: This service compares your height and genetics against a database of some of the world’s 8,000 greatest athletes, across five different metrics: endurance running, sprinting, team sports, strength, and speed. Then, you’ll learn about the “frequency of certain genetic profiles that occur more in elite athletes than in the general population.”

  • SlumberType by Exploragen: Here, you’ll learn how your DNA is associated with sleep traits like the length of time it takes “you to fall asleep, how long you stay asleep, the quality of your sleep, and your genetic similarity to self-reported morning or evening persons,” as well as how these traits might impact other areas of your life. Then, in combination with the partner’s iOS app, you’ll be able to set a customized alarm, utilize natural sounds to induce sleep, and wake up optimally each morning.

  • Personalized Scarf by Dot One: With this Helix partner, you’ll start by selecting a color to represent each of the four DNA bases we discussed earlier (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine), all of which are run through an algorithm to translate them into a pattern. Then, using Italian-made wool and acrylic yarns, a 7" x 70.8" scarf will be created that utilizes these patterns. You’ll also receive a card “detailing 33 of your genetic traits, like if your cheeks are likely to flush when you drink alcohol.”

  • Personalized Print by Dot One: You’ll be able to visualize the 0.1% of DNA that makes you unique, which is printed “using giclée on Hahnemühle German Etching paper that’s 300mm x 400mm (or 11.8" x 15.7")” on a silky smooth, fine-textured surface.

Family

  • CarrierCheck by Sema4: This test screens for variants associated with 67 inherited genetic conditions, including cystic fibrosis, beta thalassemia, and Tay-Sachs disease. All orders include a genetic counseling session and a customized test report, while in some instances, “a genetic counselor will reach out to you to discuss what your report means for you and your future children.” Customers will also have access to educational materials that can help them learn more about the conditions that the service screens for, how to read the results, and so forth.

  • Breast Milk DHA+ by EverlyWell: This service will allow you to measure how much DHA is currently in your breast milk, and whether or not you have a genetic mutation that may affect your DHA levels, which is information that can be used to “optimize your diet and improve your DHA levels.” According to the Helix website, this test is only available for women who are currently lactating or who will be lactating within six months. Simply place a few drops of breast milk on the included sample collection card, along with a small saliva sample.

Fitness

  • Fitness Buddy: All-Access Premium by Azumio: By translating your DNA into actionable recommendations (everything from a customized workout to establishing new nutrition goals), this service claims to help you “find the most effective exercises and personalized workouts,” based on experience, goals, and available equipment. During the process, you’ll be able to use the accompanying iOS app to track your workouts, gain a better baseline for your habits, log your food details for the week, and view your improvements over time.

  • Fitness Diet Pro by DNAFit: This partner uses the data provided by Helix to help you “understand how your body responds to power or endurance training, your resilience to sports injury, and recovery speed.” You’ll also learn how you’re genetically predisposed to respond to carbohydrates, saturated fats, lactose, alcohol, and caffeine, as well as whether you’re in need of substances like antioxidants, omega-3 fats, vitamin B, or vitamin D. From there, they claim you’ll be able to make the right exercise and nutrition choices.

  • Fat Burner by DNAFit: After learning about “how your body responds to strength and endurance training, your injury predisposition, post-exercise recovery speed, and aerobic response,” you’ll be provided with a 12-week plan for shedding fat. This includes a customized workout plan centered on your DNA, exercise guides, and real-time videos, involving everything from cardio and high-intensity interval training to circuit and resistance training. All training plans—which are “backed by DNAFit’s peer-reviewed genetic training algorithm”—come with one-on-one coaching support, and the exercises can be completed at the gym or home.

  • Muscle Builder by DNAFit: This is also a 12-week personalized program based on your genetic response to exercise. Instead of losing weight, though, you’ll focus on boosting muscle growth.

Health

  • Inherited Diabetes Test by Admera Health: According to the Helix website, “some people [anywhere between one and five percent of those diagnosed] with diabetes have a rare, inherited form that can be misdiagnosed.” Instead, this partner promises to help you better understand if you have Maturity Onset of Diabetes of the Young (MODY), which could impact the effectiveness of your treatments.

    After ordering, there are three possible results: No variant found, Likely pathogenic (there is strong evidence that you have a variant linked to MODY), or Pathogenic (“A variant that has definitive scientific evidence linking it with MODY was found.”)

  • Inherited Cholesterol Test by Admera Health: Instead of MODY, this Helix partner allows you to find out if you’re predisposed to having familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), “an inherited cause of extremely high “bad” cholesterol that can lead to premature cardiovascular disease.”

    Also, like the MODY test, there are three possible results: No variant found, Likely pathogenic, or Pathogenic

Nutrition

  • Calorie Mama: All-Access Premium by Azumio: In combination with an exclusive iOS app, you’ll be able to obtain personalized fitness and nutrition plans, “highlight nutrients of interest based off of your DNA,” count calories, receive motivation, see how your habits affect your results, and track your improvements over time.

  • MealPlanner by DNAFit: Similar to the Fitness Diet Pro program, MealPlanner provides an “in-depth analysis of your genetic nutrition response,” and helps you learn more about “your sensitivity to carbohydrates, saturated fat, lactose, alcohol, and caffeine.” Based on this data, you’ll receive 12 weeks of access to the genetically personalized MealPlanner platform, where you can create personalized meal plans, access recipes that fit your lifestyle and DNA, and receive a customized shopping list.

  • embodyDNA by Lose It!: This Helix partner product claims to combine your genetic data with your daily habits to provide actionable weight loss recommendations that are unique to you. For example, “How well does your body handle the foods you’re eating? Does exercise make or break your weight loss goals?” You’ll also be able to track diet and exercise trends in the iOS-only app. And combined, LoseIt! claims they have helped their members lose over 50 million pounds.

  • Metabolism+ by EverlyWell: Promises to help you learn how your DNA and your hormones impact your weight (specifically, your metabolism and how it relates to obesity) and energy levels. From there, you’ll receive evidence-based guidance regarding lifestyle changes that could boost your health.

  • Food Sensitivity+ by EverlyWell: If you’re sensitive to certain foods and can’t properly digest the nutrients they contain, this could impact your metabolism and make you feel less-than-stellar. This test will help you learn more about the foods you might be sensitive to, based on levels of immune antibodies in your blood, which can help you change your lifestyle accordingly.

  • Heart Optimizer: Genetics and Nutrition Coaching by Arivale: After receiving data about your genetic predisposition to high cholesterol and triglycerides, you’ll be paired with an Arivale Registered Dietitian “to outline strategies for a healthy heart.” This includes one-on-one coaching, in-depth phone conversations, unlimited text communication for 30 days, and personalized nutrition recommendations.

  • Beat Your Genes: Weight Loss Coaching by Arivale: Most of the same benefits featured in the Genetics and Nutrition Program, but instead, it focuses primarily on weight loss.

  • Diet GENius by Re:Point: Helps you uncover your current food habits and receive diet guidance (including explanations of any recommendations) based on your genetic predispositions, eating habits, and lifestyle. This includes balancing the macronutrients you eat, like carbs, proteins, and fats. Designed “for use with the Fitbit® platform to track everything in one place.”

How Much Do Helix’s Tests Cost?

Helix’s Exome+ sequencing service is priced at $80. From there, partner products will cost you:

  • Neanderthal by Insitome: $29.99
  • Geno 2.0 Next Generation by National Geographic: $69.95
  • Wine Explorer by Vinome: $29.99
  • StartLine by DNAFit: $49.99
  • SlumberType by Exploragen: $24.99
  • Personalized Scarf by Dot One: $149.99
  • Personalized Print by Dot One: $69.99
  • Fitness Buddy: All-Access Premium by Azumio: $99.99
  • CarrierCheck by Sema4: $199
  • Breast Milk DHA+ by EverlyWell: $89
  • Fitness Diet Pro by DNAFit: $219.99
  • Fat Burner by DNAFit: $119.99
  • Inherited Diabetes Test by Admera Health: $149.99
  • Inherited Cholesterol Test by Admera Health: $124.99
  • Calorie Mama: All-Access Premium by Azumio: $99.99
  • MealPlanner by DNAFit: $119.99
  • embodyDNA by Lose It!: $109.99
  • Metabolism+ by EverlyWell: $149
  • Food Sensitivity+ by EverlyWell: $249
  • Heart Optimizer: Genetics and Nutrition Coaching by Arivale: $79.99
  • Beat Your Genes: Weight Loss Coaching by Arivale: $89.99
  • Diet GENius by Re:Point: $89.99

Helix advises that only your healthcare provider can determine if a Helix genetic screening (and subsequent partner test) is covered by insurance.

However, refunds are available within 30 days of placing an order, but only as long as the kit hasn’t been registered. This is less S&H, along with a $25 cancellation fee. The only way to request one is through the company’s online contact form.

What Are Helix Customers Saying in Their Reviews?

We didn’t encounter much firsthand feedback about Helix during our research, which might make sense, considering the fact that their lab only sequences DNA and collects raw data. On the other hand, it’s their third-party partners who translate this data into accessible recommendations and reports.

With this in mind, Business Insider’s Lydia Ramsey ordered National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 Next Generation through Helix and found that everything was nicely packaged and easy to use, including a booklet, helpful tips, and testing supplies.

After returning her sample in the included box, it took two months to get her results, which she was able to access on her own homepage.

In the end, she liked that she wouldn't have to collect another saliva sample if she decided to order more tests in the future, but reported that she received some fundamentally different results than from 23andMe and AncestryDNA (we’ll come back to both of these companies in a moment).

After launching their online hub and ‘app’ access, MIT Technology Review’s Emily Mullin interviewed Daniel MacArthur, a scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studies the human genome. There, he warned that these genetic lifestyle, nutrition, and wellness tests “have little scientific evidence to support them.”

As a result, Stephen Montgomery, a geneticist at Stanford University, emphasizes that “Helix will have to think very carefully about what apps to allow on the platform. The average customer probably can’t discern which products are based on sound science from those that aren’t, so he hopes Helix will have some way of evaluating the quality of information the apps provide.”

Because of this scientific fuzziness, writing for The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang says that she’s “likened these lifestyle tests to horoscopes—vague, occasionally informative, sometimes amusing.”

From a company perspective, Sarah also reports that Helix represents “a new venture from private equity firms and Illumina, the company that makes most of the DNA-sequencing machines in the United States.”

The company (Helix OpCo LLC) was co-founded in 2015 by CEO Robin Thurston, SVP of Applied Genomics James Lu, SVP of Business Development and Partnerships Justin Kao, and CTO Scott Burke.

Helix vs. 23andMe vs. AncestryDNA & Other Genetic Testing Companies

According to Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic, “23andMe and AncestryDNA use Illumina’s machines, as do most research labs.” In other words, although neither of these third-party companies is listed as a Helix partner, they’re piggybacking off the same data used by other companies who are partners, such as EmbodyDNA and National Geographic.

Helix’s website emphasizes that many companies choose to utilize their Exome+ sequencing technology because it “reads every letter of all 22,000 protein-coding genes in your body, which produces 100 times more data than most consumer genetics companies.”

This way, they claim, their partners can offer products with deeper insights, which are based on “some of the most important and well-studied pieces of your DNA.”

Regardless of the provider, though, Helix’s FAQ indicates the company’s geneticists perform a detailed scientific approval review of each one before they’re made available for purchase. Does this mean you should go ahead and spend your hard-earned money?

In Is Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing Right For You, we point out that most of these nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle genetic tests are not predictive, with minimal science supporting their interpretations of your DNA.

Or, as Ellen Matloff, a certified genetic counselor and the President and CEO of My Gene Counsel points out, "Some of these tests are medically validated, and others are simply genutainment – genetics entertainment.”

In other words, the most important thing is to maintain realistic expectations. Also, unless you’re utilizing a testing company that’s helping you screen for genetic abnormalities, which does have substantial clinical support, the high cost of many of these tests aren’t covered by health insurance.

Finally, look for companies with mostly positive online customer feedback, as well as those that offer robust support after your results have been received. After all, it’s possible that you’ll have a lot of questions, which could be frustrating if you can’t obtain clear answers.

Our Final Thoughts About Helix

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question “Should I pay for an entertainment-focused genetic test?”

But since most of the information they promise to provide is health-related (whether nutrition, fitness, or general wellness), it might make sense to start off by making an appointment with your doctor.

They’ll be able to ask the right questions and order the appropriate tests, and then use this information to make recommendations based on your specific diagnosis—and whether or not genetic testing services provided by companies like Helix fit into your treatment plan.

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