DNA tests re­veal core of ill­ness and char­ac­ter

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By YUAN QUAN and CHEN SHUAITONG

“Know thy­self and you will know the uni­verse,” said the an­cient Greeks. Well, one way to do that nowa­days is via DNA anal­y­sis.

Just put 2 milliliters of saliva into a con­tainer, and send it to a DNA test­ing com­pany. After 20 days, you will re­ceive an on­line re­port de­tail­ing your an­ces­try, phys­i­cal fea­tures, risk of dis­ease, and phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal traits.

While such test­ing was in­vented in the West, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in China.

A re­cent sur­vey by China Youth Daily showed that the coun­try has more than 230 DNA anal­y­sis com­pa­nies, and 70 per­cent of them pro­vide such ser­vices. Dozens of new com­pa­nies have sprung up in the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try in the past year.

Zhang Qian, 30, said wors­en­ing health drove her to un­dergo anal­y­sis. Work pres­sure had strained the civil ser­vant’s health for many years, lead­ing to prob­lems with her blood ves­sels, thy­roid and ovaries. In re­cent years, re­ports of young peo­ple dy­ing at work had scared her.

Ex­pect­ing the test to pre­dict and pre­vent dis­eases, she paid 699 yuan ($100) for one in March. The re­sults sug­gested she was likely to de­velop car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

Many dis­eases are caused by ge­netic mu­ta­tion, and DNA test­ing can help iden­tify dis­ease or risk genes so treat­ment can be sought.

Qin Yu, 25, who works for an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy com­pany, was wor­ried when a test in­di­cated she was at high risk of de­vel­op­ing breast and ovar­ian can­cers.

She re­mem­bered the story of Hol­ly­wood star Angelina Jolie, who in 2013 un­der­went a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy and later had her ovaries re­moved after learn­ing that she car­ried a ge­netic mu­ta­tion linked to breast and ovar­ian can­cers.

Qin im­me­di­ately went to a hospi­tal for an ex­am­i­na­tion. The test didn’t un­earth any se­ri­ous prob­lems, but she bought health in­sur­ance any­way.

In China, DNA test­ing ser­vices cost from hun­dreds to thou­sands of yuan, but prices are fall­ing.

The cost of test­ing was 10,000 times higher in 2001, when the world’s first hu­man genome se­quence map was com­pleted, said Guo Tingt­ing, founder of Ge­seDNA Tech­nol­ogy, a startup. “It’s no longer a lux­ury, but a ser­vice for gen­eral con­sumers,” Guo said.

More than 5,000 fac­tors can be de­tected, in­clud­ing al­most 4,000 ge­netic dis­eases, more than 100 dis­ease risks, about 100 types of drug sen­si­tiv­ity, and dozens of phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics.

How­ever, most di­rect-to-con­sumer test­ing prod­ucts pro­vide only lim­ited in­for­ma­tion about in­her­ited con­di­tions.

Some ad­ver­tis­ing for DNA tests has been crit­i­cized for ex­ag­ger­ated and in­ac­cu­rate mes­sages about the con­nec­tion be­tween ge­netic in­for­ma­tion and risk of dis­ease. How­ever, most com­pa­nies stress that their test re­sults should not be used for clin­i­cal di­ag­no­sis.

Hu­man traits and dis­eases are the re­sult of a com­bi­na­tion of genes and en­vi­ron­ment, ac­cord­ing to Chen Gang, founder of gene test­ing com­pany WeGene.

“Even gene ex­pres­sion is af­fected by the en­vi­ron­ment,” said Chen, adding that genes are not the only fac­tor and some of the crit­i­cisms were un­fair.

Guo agreed: “Ge­netic in­for­ma­tion is like your back­ground color, to­gether with your ex­pe­ri­ence in life and your sur­round­ings grow­ing up — the fac­tors that jointly de­cide who you are.”

His com­pany fo­cuses on be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics. Most of its em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing Guo, have stud­ied neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy.

The com­pany pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about peo­ple’s emo­tions and be­hav­iors, such as whether they are a party an­i­mal, a late sleeper or a loner.

Some peo­ple com­pare such tests to horo­scopes, but Guo said the test re­sults are based on real re­search pub­lished in in­ter­na­tional jour­nals.

For ex­am­ple, “the ra­tio of be­ing sin­gle” was based on a study con­ducted by re­searchers at Pek­ing Univer­sity in Bei­jing. They found that peo­ple with a vari­ant of the HTR1A gene are poor at ex­press­ing their emo­tions, which could lead to mis­un­der­stand­ings in re­la­tion­ships.

“It’s easy for peo­ple to un­der­stand that ge­netic dis­eases are re­lated to genes, but dif­fi­cult for them to un­der­stand that the way they talk or re­act to peo­ple can also be ge­netic,” Guo said.

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