Personalized medicine startup offers breast milk testing kits; hopes data can be used for large scale nutritional study

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Image © iStockPhoto / patrisyu
Image © iStockPhoto / patrisyu

Related tags Nutrition

Personalized nutrition is taking a step forward with the release of a home test kit for mothers to test breast milk. The data can be used to tailor supplementation, and could form the basis of a longitudinal study.

Offered by Happy Vitals, Inc., the home test uses the company’s scientific and digital technologies to provide an detailed assessment of the nutrition and immunity status of breast milk—fats, proteins, carbs and key vitamins—all charted over time with an integrated digital portal for personal health tracking. In addition, Happy Vitals also offers heavy metal toxin tests for pregnant women and children via non-invasive hair or fingernail/toenail samples.

Finding the best mix of nutrients to foster childhood development both in utero​ and after birth is one of the emphases of the dietary supplement industry and functional foods industries. Folate, for instance, has a health claim associated with it for its link to the reduction in risk of neural tube defects when used by pregnant women, and the addition of DHA to infant formula has long been associated with the health development of infants’ brains.

Healthy Vitals co-founder and CEO Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, believes there is a lot more to discover along these lines, and says his company is at the forefront of communicating the benefit of nutritional interventions to consumers.

Quantified health movement

“We are primarily a quantified health company,” ​Feigl-Ding told NutraIngredients-USA. “That’s an umbrella, a new movement in which people can actually measure their own health and keep track of it. This is a huge movement in the future of nutrition.”

Feigl-Ding, who is an epidemiologist, nutritionist and health economist, was until recently was on the faculty at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health. He has more than 100 publications and has served as a consultant for the World Health Organization and an adviser to the European Commission. His wife and co-founder, Andrea Feigl-Ding, PhD, is also on the faculty at Harvard. Part of the motivation for founding the company and offering this first product was to find out what’s best for their 2-year-old child.

The breast milk test kit costs about $150 for a basic version, and supplies the mother with vials and a cold pack-cooled shipping container for samples. 

“It’s a direct to the home lab testing service for nutrition,”​ Feigl-Ding said. “We provide overnight express shipping to our laboratory, which is a certified government lab in Canada.”

The results include a tie-in to a mobile app that helps mothers understand and use the data, Feigl-Ding said.

“The key thing is that we are not just sending a sheet with numbers but we explain the results to the mother with the mobile app,”​ he said.

Feigl-Ding said those results can be used by mothers in a variety of ways. Among the key questions the test kit seeks to answer are:

  • Is the baby receiving proper nutrients?
  • How does what the mother eats affect what the baby receives?
  • Can breastmilk be optimized?

Feigl-Ding said that research has shown that for breastfed babies, supplementation for the mother is a more efficient approach to improving the infant’s nutritional intake as opposed to trying to supplement the child directly.

“For instance, it has been shown that supplementing the mother with vitamin D is just as effective as giving the babies vitamin D drops,”​ he said. “In terms of vitamins and micronutrient levels in their breastmilk the information would clearly be aimed at helping them to modify their diet.”

Infant health study

Eric Fiegl-Ding
Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, Co-Founder and CEO of Happy Vitals

Another goal of the company’s test kits would be to assemble enough data over time to be able to do a longitudinal study on early childhood nutrition among breastfed babies. There are a number of troubling spikes in certain conditions among children in recent decades, Feigl-Ding said, and too little information is currently available to be able to parse out the reasons for this.

“Allergies, autism and asthma have double or tripled in the last 15-20 years. It is quite staggering and we don’t know the causes. We think it has something to do with early childhood nutrition. There are theories out there, but we actually have no clue,”​ Feigl-Ding said.

Women who purchase the kits would have the option of donating the data on their milk and participating in the study that could give baseline measurements on a host of development milestones, he said. The number of participants necessary to get a valid study would depend on what endpoints were desired, Feigl-Ding said.

“The US has never had a nationwide children’s health study. With our kits we could collect actual nutritional data that would quantify a whole range of nutritional markers. We could look at things like when these kids take their first steps or say their first words. For first steps or first words, you could get good results with just a few hundred participants. To look at things that are more rare like autism or other childhood diseases, you’d need a much bigger number,” ​he said.

Staying within the boundaries

Feigl-Ding said rules governing health information on mobile apps have been loosened recently. Nevertheless, he said he is well aware of the high-profile problems genomic testing company 23andMe has had with authorities. The information Happy Vitals will dispense will stay well within the realm of nutritional recommendations and will stay away from the discussing the genetic predisposition for certain diseases, which is what got 23andMe into hot water.

“Dietary recommendations have changed over time, but we are getting them more and more precise. At Happy Vitals we are part of the personal quantified health movement in which people can have the most up-to-date scientific information about their nutrition at their fingertips,” ​he said.

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