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The DNA test that tells you what not to eat

Krystal Chia

Bloomberg

| Thu, February 1, 2018 | 07:04 am
The DNA test that tells you what not to eat

A technician handles a sample (Bloomberg/Anthony Kwan)

Hong Konger David Leung is spurning white rice and eating fish thrice a week under a diet plan inspired by his DNA.

A genetic test in November that came free with an insurance policy revealed risk factors associated with type-2 diabetes and heart disease -- ailments the 54-year-old engineer learned he might be able to avoid by consuming less simple carbohydrates and more fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

While doctors have long dispensed such nutritional advice to patients with a family history of these diseases, the emergence of affordable genomic studies is giving consumers new insights into how to live healthier lives. It’s a burgeoning market that Credence Research Inc. predicts will generate $340 million by 2022 from $70.2 million in 2015.

Prenetics Inc., the Hong Kong-based biotechnology company that analyzed Leung’s genes, sold more than 100,000 DNA testing kits last year -- five times more than in 2016 -- and aims to double sales volumes this year as it starts marketing directly to consumers as well as through insurers.

“We’ve seen a lot of demand from individual consumers who want our test,” Chief Executive Officer Danny Yeung said in an interview. “We want to democratize genetic testing.”

Global trend

More than a decade after Mountain View, California-based 23andMe Inc. began offering genetic testing and interpretation to individual consumers, the market is “fast becoming mainstream, thanks to falling prices, better marketing and distribution, and positive regulatory changes,” Euromonitor International said in a report this month.

Genetic testing ranks among the research firm’s top-10 global consumer trends for 2018. Companies such as FitnessGenes Ltd., DNAFit, Orig3n Inc., and Nutrigenomix Inc. are offering analysis for genetic variations that affect such characteristics as muscle mass, endurance, fat-burning ability and metabolism.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore-based Imagene Labs Pte Ltd.offers personalized DNA-based recommendations on skin care, nutritional supplements and fitness in packages that start at S$350 ($266). The company aims to raise $15 million in a round of venture-capital financing in the first half of this year, and expects at least a 20-fold increase in sales through new partnerships with spa and fitness chains in 2018, Managing Director Wong Mun Yew said.

Read also: Sophisticated DNA labs unveiled to help trace the missing

Interpreting risk

A DNA detection machineA DNA detection machine (Bloomberg/Anthony Kwan)

It cost as much as $1 billion to generate the first human genome sequence in 2003. Since then, technological advances have slashed the time and cost of deciphering the body’s genetic code.

Comparatively less progress has been made in interpreting the data and predicting an individual’s risks for particular diseases, said Nina McCarthy, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Genetic Origins of Health and Disease in Perth.

“As we get better at building genetic risk profiles for various different diseases, the tests will become more meaningful,” McCarthy said, adding she wouldn’t recommend her friends or family participate yet, unless they are concerned about a particular risk factor and intend to interpret the results carefully. “At the moment, I think a lot of the clinical information is not very good, and the potential to scare people is quite high.”

Also, she says, genetic tests for common disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, will never be completely predictive because such conditions aren’t determined by genetics alone.

Cheek swab

For Leung, the Hong Kong engineer, a DNA analysis was performed on cells taken from the inside lining of his cheeks and scanned for specific genetic markers known to increase the probability of certain diseases, the risks for which can be potentially modified by nutrition.

The genetic analysis and diet recommendations were detailed in a 44-page report that’s supported by an app enabling him to interact with a health coach. Leung’s insurer Prudential Plc offered him the test with Prenetics, which plans to start a consumer-facing service later this year.

Prenetics’s CEO Yeung said he expects that business to contribute a third of the 200,000 units he aims to sell in 2018. Ping An Insurance, which along with online-retailing giant Alibaba Group is among Prenetics’ financial backers, is the “obvious choice” to partner with the company in a planned foray into China this year, he said, adding that Prenetics is also talking to other insurers.

Read also: Mouse study shows how alcohol may cause cancer

Unregulated market

While growth in the consumer genetic market is global, competition in the “largely unregulated Chinese market” is particularly intense, according to last month’s Euromonitor report.

As costs of DNA testing fall further, more companies will enter the market to tap growing demand from a more health-conscious and knowledgeable population, said Loke Wai Chiong, Deloitte’s Singapore-based Southeast Asia health-care sector leader.

Consumers today, he said, are typically motivated less by a fear of a potential familial cancer risk and more by an interest in knowing the best fitness regime or diet for them.

In the past, genetic studies were arranged in a clinical setting in which a doctor would decide if a DNA test was warranted. The opportunity for consumers to bypass doctors removes a set of “checks and balances,” said Jacqueline Savard, a postdoctoral research fellow in health ethics at the University of Sydney.

For example, consumers may not receive appropriate assistance in selecting tests or in conveying potentially important information to family members. Also, without an agreement about how the data is used, consumers’ privacy and confidentiality may be breached.

‘Evolving story’

“It is important to recognize that while the allure of genetics and the weight of scientific authority that comes with it is promising, results still need to be made sense of in light of each person’s life,” Savard said. “The ‘answers’ received are rarely final, but instead form part of an evolving story.”

After changing his diet based on his DNA results, Leung said he is feeling more energetic, and will encourage his friends to get tested, too. He’s also assured that his information will be kept private.

“The company tells us that there is no exchange of data between them and insurance companies, so I’m confident about the test,” he said.

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