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Bio-Synergy: DNA, epigenetics and space travel

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Bio-Synergy CEO Daniel Herman speaks about the role of nutrients, DNA and epigenetics in space exploration and how these concepts can be applied closer to home.

A groundbreaking new field is changing our understanding of human biology.

Epigenetics is the study of how behaviours and environmental factors can influence gene activity without altering our DNA sequence.

The epigenome, acting as a master orchestrator, exerts control over our genes and plays a pivotal role in shaping our development and health outcomes.

Over the past half-century, the term “epigenetics” has evolved in line with a deepening knowledge of the intricate molecular mechanisms governing gene expression.

Today, this evolving landscape is opening doors to a new realm of possibilities in healthcare, wellbeing and even space exploration.

Bio-Synergy, an established supplements and sports nutrition company, is one of the new leaders in this emerging field.

Health Tech World sat down with the company’s CEO, Daniel Herman, to find out how its epigenetic kits are being used by NASA and other space agencies to combat the challenges of space travel.

Epigenetics in space

In 2022, Bio-Synergy CEO, Daniel Herman, was approached by someone claiming to represent NASA.

His first assumption was that the email was a scam.

“I remember when Tim Peake went off into space quite a few years ago, we did an April Fool’s that we were supplying NASA and people loved it,” Herman said.

“They bought into it big time.

“The fact that I should then get this email was ironic, right?

“We did a bit of digging and, in the end, we responded to the email expecting it to be some guy just trying to take us for a ride.

“It actually turned out that it was Justin Packshaw, an ex-forces guy. He had been taken on to run what’s called an analogue mission for NASA.”

An analogue mission is what prepares the astronauts and technology for space exploration missions.

Experiments take place in harsh environments in order to push the equipment and people to the limit.

Such missions were used to prepare for leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and setting foot on the moon.

Now, these missions are used to ready astronauts for deeper space destinations, including Mars and asteroids.

This particular mission was part of preparation for the Artemis mission.

It took a team of astronauts to the North Pole, travelling 4200km in 42 days without any mechanical equipment.

Harking back to the very first North Pole expeditions of the early 20th Century, the entire route would be taken by foot. Aside from emergency protocols, the crew were on their own.

“[This] was to try and see the psychological and physical impacts that the astronauts might experience on the moon, and the North Pole is the closest thing you can get.”

Initially, NASA was interested in Bio-Synergy’s nutrition products, particularly its vitamin D supplements, protein powders and Omega 3 products.

But following the success of the analogue mission and a conversation with NASA’s head of human performance, the company is now bringing its DNA and epigenetics technology into the equation.

This is part of a wider effort from NASA to explore how epigenetics and gene expression are impacted by human spaceflight.

Herman said:

“[NASA] want to look at A: are there any traits that might make good astronauts in terms of their physicality, their memory and how they deal with stress.

“Then it is looking at trying to support from a nutrition point of view whilst in orbit.

“Obviously, if you can understand one individual’s needs specifically for them, you can tailor the food and everything else around the individual rather than being generic.”

Space exploration takes a huge toll on the body.

Zero gravity, over time, has a big impact on muscle wasting, while radiation exposure has a negative effect on general health and ageing.

NASA’s landmark Twins Study conducted from 2016-2017 studied the genes of Retired NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother Mark.

Mark provided a baseline for observation on Earth, and Scott provided a comparable test case during the 340 days he spent in space.

The study identified observed changes in the expression of Scott’s genes, with the majority returning to normal after six months on Earth.

However, a small percentage of genes related to the immune system and DNA repair did not return to baseline.

While previous approaches have relied on more generic information, epigenetics allow space agencies to take a deeper look at how space travel impacts astronauts and which will cope better with the physical and mental challenges of orbit.

Off the back of its work with NASA, Bio-Synergy were accepted onto the UK Space Agency Accelerator programme and plans to delve deeper into the space industry over the coming years.

“We’re now in the process of applying for a grant with the European Space Agency to develop the product further,” Herman said.

“[We’re] looking at the space industry, but then also looking at the applications here on earth as well.”

Bringing cutting-edge epigenetics back to Earth

One of the most useful aspects of epigenetic tests is their capability to measure the body’s biological age.

While chronological age refers to the actual time that has passed since an individual’s birth, biological age is determined by a person’s physiological or biological condition.

It takes into account various factors such as overall health, fitness level, lifestyle choices, genetic factors and environmental influences.

In some cases, a person’s biological age may be different from their chronological age.

For example, someone who is chronologically 40 but has poor health and engages in unhealthy habits may have a higher biological age, suggesting that their body is ageing faster than expected.

Biological age can be assessed through various biomarkers, medical tests and assessments that evaluate overall health, organ function, cellular health and genetic factors.

Bio-Synergy’s kits use saliva to analyse people’s DNA and provide biological age along with eye age, hearing age and memory age.

Given the high-tech nature of these tests, it would be reasonable to assume that they attract early adopters like athletes and astronauts.

But back on Earth, the company is seeing the biggest interest from the over 60s looking to optimise their later years.

“They’re looking for small things that they can do today to prolong their tomorrow and it’s not about just prolonging their lifespan,” Herman said.

“It’s about being active for as long as possible in their remaining lifespan.”

Epigenetic tests are part of a wider push towards personalised health.

Digging deeper into our DNA, Bio-Synergy seeks to cut through common misconceptions surrounding health and nutrition.

For example, the keto diet, which has gained huge popularity in recent years, may work well for some people, but for others, it may lead to nutrient deficiency, low blood pressure or heightened cholesterol.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to being healthy but epigenetics could hold the key to unveiling what might work on an individual level.

Where Herman sees the biggest potential is in people who have “fallen out of love with fitness and health”.

“Everybody deserves to be healthy and fit and get the most out of their lifestyle,” he added.

“I think in one respect, yes, athletes and astronauts can benefit from this but they’re talking about marginal gains.

“Where I think we can have a huge impact is on people who perhaps have fallen out of love with fitness and health because over the years they’ve followed these fad diets or they’ve been miscommunicated to or spoken to as a group rather than as an individual.”

Now, just over a year since launching its DNA and Epigenetic kits, Bio-Synergy has around 10,000 people using the kits across the UK.

While its primary focus is the lifestyle and wellness space, the company has been awarded an Innovate UK grant to investigate the potential of its platform to mitigate non-communicable diseases like type 2 diabetes.

Herman added:

“There’s this whole other opportunity of using the information to take the stress off of the NHS and other medical organisations around the world by giving people an action plan for a healthy life, which not only just reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases, but potentially things like cancer and so on as well.”

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