test­ing grounds

DU­BI­OUS DNA RE­SULTS MAKE A FOR­TUNE TELLING FOR­TUNES

The World of Chinese - - Tea Loves - – DAVID DAW­SON

Ge­netic screen­ing has its uses: It helped A-list ac­tor An­gelina Jolie, for ex­am­ple, de­ter­mine that she was at a high risk of breast can­cer, lead­ing to a pre­ven­ta­tive mas­tec­tomy.

But what ge­netic screen­ing can’t demon­strate is whether, broadly speak­ing, your child will have an ap­ti­tude for math­e­mat­ics or sports. Cer­tain spe­cific health prob­lems, yes; but sweep­ing state­ments about the fu­ture char­ac­ter of an adult? The sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for such tests was sim­ply “too weak,” con­cluded 22 ex­perts in ge­nomics and health, who signed a 2015 state­ment pub­lished in the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Sports Medicine.

That hasn’t stopped a num­ber of Chi­nese star­tups from promis­ing par­ents all man­ner of de­tails about their child’s ge­netic fu­ture, us­ing le­git­i­mate sci­ence as embroidery for more fan­tas­tic claims—all for a fat fee.

In 2016, Techn­ode, de­scrib­ing China’s “Wild West” of bou­tique ge­netic test­ing, cited 360°Gene, a match­mak­ing com­pany which claimed to be able to pair its clients with suit­able part­ners via DNA screen­ing; other star­tups of­fered tests that would re­veal whether a child might suf­fer from acne, or even have a propen­sity to smoke.

A re­port by an­other com­pany, Gene­joy, cap­i­tal­ized on par­ents’ anx­i­eties by claim­ing that “60 per­cent” of par­ents miss out on ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause they are not aware of their child’s in­her­ited tal­ents, and thus choose the wrong sub­jects or de­vel­op­men­tal pe­ri­ods for ed­u­cat­ing their child.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to achieve suc­cess if you don’t have the nat­u­ral tal­ent; sports cham­pi­ons have sports genes, mu­si­cians have mu­si­cal genes, and en­trepreneurs have EQ genes. The peo­ple who suc­ceed must make the best of his or her dom­i­nant po­ten­tial genes,” the re­port claims.

Not all these com­pa­nies are nec­es­sar­ily un­trust­wor­thy. Li Ruiqiang, CEO of Bei­jing-based Novo­gene, which fo­cuses on bioin­for­mat­ics re­search and clin­i­cal ser­vices, told Sixth Tone that his com­pany would never of­fer “tal­ent tests,” be­cause they want to fo­cus on re­sults “that are sci­en­tif­i­cally re­li­able.”

Other, faced with a choice of es­tab­lished sci­ence or

sug­ges­tive hokum, dab­ble in both. Take Guangzhou-based Daan Gene: The com­pany shot into the spot­light af­ter Ran Yingy­ing, a for­mer tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter and wife of fly­weight box­ing cham­pion Zou Shim­ing, posted her son’s ge­netic test re­sults on Weibo. Among the re­sults of the test—which cost 6,500 Rmb—were de­tails of his likely ap­ti­tude for mu­sic and in­ter­per­sonal skills.

Daan Gene, how­ever, isn’t some non-cre­den­tialed fly-bynight com­pany; it is af­fil­i­ated with Sun Yat-sen Univer­sity and for many years spe­cial­ized in ge­netic re­search. Daan Gene’s for­ays into sell­ing test re­sults to the pub­lic are a re­cent one, match­ing a pub­lic de­mand for a (sci­en­tif­i­cally du­bi­ous) knowl­edge of the fu­ture. In ex­plain­ing its ra­tio­nale, Daan Gene has told me­dia that it has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help the pub­lic un­der­stand ge­netic test­ing, from a “sim­pler” an­gle.

Part of the rea­son why com­pa­nies can make such un­founded claims is lack of reg­u­la­tion. Ge­netic tests are re­stricted in terms of clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions, so com­pa­nies need to be care­ful about the med­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of their find­ings, but out­side of that caveat, al­most any­thing goes. In­clud­ing, cur­rently, the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of hav­ing your palm read.

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