The Innovators Working to Reinvent Healthcare
This analysis was provided to Spector by his personalised nutrition app ZOE, which analyses people’s responses to food. The app uses data derived from a study of over 13000 twins, one of the largest studies of its kind. When conducting that study, one of the first ‘aha’ moments for Spector was how variable people’s responses are when eating identical foods “We saw an eight to ten- fold difference between people responding to eating a muffin, both in terms of their sugar, insulin, but also their fat responses,” Spector said. “The other ‘aha’ moment was that twins respond very differently to the same food.” In other words, genetics were not that important.
ZOE requires users to do initial home-tests for their microbiome, blood sugar and blood fat. The app then offers dietary recommendations, ranking the foods individuals should be prioritising and offering support from nutritionists. Every six months, users do a round of retesting to track progress.
“The outcomes we’ve had so far have been very exciting,” Spector said. “People who followed their personalised care plan after three months’ experience a nine-and-a-half pound [4.3kg] average weight loss. 83 per cent generally felt less hunger and 82 per cent had more energy, a finding we hadn’t expected.”
The idea for ZOE came five years ago, when Spector was approached by two entrepreneurs, Jonathan Wolf and George Hadjigeorgiou, after a talk he gave about one of his books, “The Diet Myth”. Wolf and Hadjigeorgiou wanted to launch an personalised nutrition app that could harness technologies like machine learning, at-home blood testing and continuous glucose monitoring. “I told them, ‘I’m not interested unless you’re really going to fund research. You’ve got to go and find a few million dollars to go and get this to do it properly’”, Spector recalled. “Amazingly, they did find the money.”
ZOE’s first study, PREDICT, one of the world’s largest nutrition studies, involved researchers from Stanford, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard, Tufts and King’s College London. “That study was just wrapping up when Covid hit,” Spector said. “We came up with the idea of converting the nutrition app, and the whole team behind it, to do something about Covid.”
After five days of development, ZOE released the Covid Symptom Tracker app on the first day of lockdown in the UK. Within 24 hours, it had reached one million downloads. “It crashed our server,” Spector said. By September 2021, the app had more than 4.5 million users. “This app exceeded all our expectations,” Spector said. “We were filling an unmet need. People weren’t able to see their doctors, they weren’t able to get to hospitals, they were told to just shut up and go away, no one was listening to them. We listened to them, we took all their symptoms.” The ZOE study was the first to report many of now known symptoms of coronavirus infections, such as loss of smell and taste, delirium in the elderly, skin rashes and others. “In the initial months, no one from the UK government contacted us other than indirectly trying to shut us down,” Spector says. “There was a lot of resistance from institutions to what we were doing, despite the enormous appeal to the public.” Eventually, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Officer, Patrick Vallance, who had supported the app from the outset, persuaded the Department of Health to include ZOE on their portfolio of tests. “Things did change, but they were pretty dodgy the first few months,” Spector says.
Published at Wed, 08 Dec 2021 12:00:00 +0000