A new biotech company promises that a simple blood test can help us change our lives. Sophie Morris finds her result oddly uplifting. But was it really worth the money?


I make an improbable biohacker.I don’t live in Silicon Valley, for starters. Nor am I availed of the millions of pounds fuelling infamous longevity fanatics like Bryan Johnson, the 46-year-old known for injecting his own son’s blood in the pursuit of everlasting youth. I wouldn’t even say I’m particularly interested in tech, apart from its capacity to serve me miniature cow videos.

But middle age and motherhood have brought about an interest in my own health, after 30 years of treating my body like it’s on a perennial supermarket sweep. So I was intrigued to hear about Croatian biotech startup GlycanAge and its pioneering new test, which measures how our cells are ageing, and determines our biological age, by looking at the inflammation present, drawing on the relatively young field of glycobiology.

Inflammation is widely considered to be a driver of chronic illness, from diabetes to stroke, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. If our cells show more inflammation than is typical for a person of our age, sex and race, we’re more likely to develop certain diseases.

But even more intriguing than finding out my biological age is the invitation to try and game the ageing process, once the results are in, by “hacking” my lifestyle. Could I possibly turn back the clock on my insides? Could my internal biological age - rather than chronological age - be reversed?

To find out, I tried the GlycanAge test, which costs upwards of £289 for one at-home kit and personal consultation, or £578 - often offered with a discount - for two tests. (Chief marketing officer Vladi Mihaylova tells me that most customers buy two tests because they want to make improvements and then retest to measure the impact).

The blood tests, claims GlycanAge, show how our “glycans” (carbohydrates that attach themselves to proteins, a reaction called glycosylation) are behaving, which in turn gives us insights into our future health. Glycans tend to change five to 10 years before the symptoms of a disease appear, so the hope is that looking at glycans is an early warning system, predicting our propensity for chronic conditions. The research is already being used in cancer treatment. The GlycanAge website is flush with case studies of happy biohackers who have reduced their biological ages, just like Johnson, but by spending a few hundred quid rather than two million dollars.

The company was founded by father-daughter team Gordan and Nikolina Lauc. It can’t be easy to be a young female entrepreneur in the blood testing field after the Theranos scandal, in which CEO Elizabeth Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors over fake diagnostic claims. But CEO Nikolina, 32, is backed by Gordan, 69, an expert in the field and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Zagreb, an honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh and King’s

College London, and co-founder of the Human Glycome project.

The test itself is straightforward, though it’s harder than I expect to squeeze the blood out of my fingertips and I need a couple of pricks to generate the four drops required. I post the sample back and contemplate my years. I’m often surprised by my grey hair and the deepening furrow between my eyebrows, though neither appeared overnight.

How do I feel inside? Tired. On the one hand, I of course hoped to open my results to discover I am 25 all over again. On the other, that sounds like a lot of effort. What’s more, given the slurry I have lobbed at my body over the years, and a significant history of operations and aches and pains, I’m not hopeful of a cheering outcome.

When I find out that GlycanAge has put me at 48, four years older than my real age, I am unexpectedly chuffed. But how has it given me that age? And how accurate is it?

My results are measured against an algorithm of 200,000 data samples including those from the UK biobank along with other sources. Individual results are plotted against others from the same sex, age and ethnicity. GlycanAge measures across 29 glycan structures, grouped into five indexes. Three of these have either a pro or anti-inflammatory function. The other two can point to specific diseases, genetic traits or lifestyle choices.

These are presented to customers to explain why their ‘biological age’ might be higher or lower than expected, with recommendations for improving the result with another test, some months down the line.

Putting a number on your health that relates to age is a smart way of grabbing attention, that’s for sure. I wonder if it does the fascinating field of glycobiology justice. The Lauc family believe it’s preventative medicine, with the potential for large-scale application - if it works. It is already being used by around 1,000 practitioners worldwide, including many US doctors where, chief marketing officer Vladi Mihaylova tells me, people are more used to forking out for healthcare. Here she says that, while GPs were receptive to the proposition, there is no sign the NHS will fund this kind of test any time soon, if ever.

“Glycobiology is a rapidly evolving area,” explains Paula Francekovi, the nutritionist and health optimisation specialist I meet online to discuss my results. Paula explains that 40 per cent of our glycan makeup is genetic, and that it’s more important to measure your own trajectory over time (as you could with continued testing) than to compare yourself to others (as a single test does). She also says that a result as close as mine to my real age - most people come in at more than nine years higher or lower - is rare. I choose to interpret this to mean that my result could easily have been 44 or 42 or 40, and that I am in exemplary health.

Paula looks youthful and wrinklefree over Zoom but tells me her biological age is actually 49 - 20 years more than her real age. She knows this is because she has an atopic dermatitis skin disorder, which she has always suffered from, and tested at the height of a bad flare-up. She is in the process of implementing lifestyle and therapeutic changes before testing again, and hopes to be rewarded with a younger result. This seems a great way to test how her skin responds to various interventions, and shows how the test does not exactly reflect how our body is ageing, but what’s going on with our health at the moment of testing.

I cherry-pick from the rest of the findings, landing on Paula’s wonder at two of my sets of results, Glycan Median and Glycan Lifestyle. “Your Glycan Median is very high,” says Paula. “This is beneficial, given the rest of your results. These are a transitory set of glycans that have one galactose on top, so they give us a look into the future. When we have an increased quantity of these glycans, there is a higher chance they are going to get another galactose and turn into a Glycan Youth (anti-inflammatory) in the future.”

Paula says she sees this pattern in people who have already begun, before the test, to implement some positive lifestyle changes. I tell her I’ve made some efforts to improve my sleep and she’s excited by this, saying if I test again, I am likely to see an improvement. My lifestyle results are also impressive, she says, suggesting I’m squeaky clean on the drinking, smoking and UPF front. Two out of three ain’t bad. She also says that there are no overlaps with my glycan pattern and a risk of developing the diseases, nor any sign I am perimenopausal.

Can I rely on these results? Dr Harpal Bains, a doctor practising in the longevity field and medical director of Harpal Clinic, says that inflammation can be a decent measure of future illness. “Keeping in mind that many diseases of ageing start with low levels of inflammation long before they develop into full-blown diseases, tests which specialise in detecting early-stage inflammation have a huge role in preventative healthcare and screening.”

But Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge Molecular Biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, who has written a book called Why We Die, told The Times that age is a complex process that can’t be attributed to a single cause - such as inflammation, which the GlycanAge test measures - but he did not wish to comment further.

I ask Dr Bains whether putting a number on our bodies makes a game out of ageing, and might trivialise that lottery of developing chronic disease. “For a person who feels well and in the peak of their health, getting a result which doesn’t reflect how they feel is likely to trigger a change in behaviour as it creates more awareness, especially in those where there is a strong history of degenerative diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and dementia,” she says.

“Chronic diseases usually start a good 10-20 years before you see any results reflected in conventional blood testing. Therefore, to understand where your source of inflammation is, and to be proactive about managing it very early on, can only contribute to improving one’s health and saving the NHS money.”

I’m in the clear, then? Not quite.

While the consultation was in-depth and interesting, the “personalised advice” I am given feels generic: exercise more, sleep and eat better, retest in a few months. Why fork out for these widely available home truths?

“The biggest advantage of our test is seeing your body’s unique response to your lifestyle,” says Vladi. “We disappoint a lot of our customers, who come to us hoping to be told to take a supplement, but we have to tell them to stress less or really think about their sleep. The hardest part is making these changes.”

The test itself can do nothing to improve my health outcomes. But will it encourage me to change my lifestyle? It has certainly optimised my opinion of my own health. GlycanAge is pitching its success on human behaviour, that assigning an age to our health will be the nudge we need to treat our bodies better.

Whether I treat the good news as a catalyst for good behaviour or an excuse to order a takeaway remains to be seen. I suspect the former, with the heavy caveat that while this may have been a fun exercise for me, we can’t game the big guns like cancer, only hope for more and better diagnosis and treatment as we age, which is an inevitability for all of us, Bryan Johnson included.


One in five adults over 50 has at least one organ that is ageing at an accelerated rate, according to a study by Stanford University

Stress, a bad diet and sedentary habits have been shown to speed up ageing

Keeping body weight, blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure in check can slow the ageing process

The longevity industry is projected to be worth $44bn by 2030