Genetic testing is commonly known among healthcare professionals as a tool to help patients rule out suspected genetic conditions, or determine their chances of catching or passing on certain genetic conditions. Recently, this method has become the next ‘it’ for competitive parents looking to help their child gain an edge.

Heavily commercialised in China, it is offered by many start-ups which claim to “reveal” what talents children will develop in later life.

Predicting the next Stephen Hawking, Lady Gaga or Usain Bolt

The genetic testing procedures involve taking a saliva swab which is analysed at laboratories. Approximately two weeks later, parents are provided with a profile of their child’s general level of intelligence, emotional understanding, concentration, introversion or extroversion, as well as their areas of talent.

According to Wang Junyi, the president of 1Gene in Hangzhou, “thousands” of children have done tests at the facility since it formally launched in October last year.

Although China has withdrawn its one-child policy, many families are left with a single offspring who is expected to support the family when they become adults. This has resulted in parents with very high expectations, who would go very far to see their children achieve success in a field.

“Many of my friends are anxious about deciding what their children should learn, as they fear making stupid decisions could result in lost opportunities,” said Wang.

“They will be wasting money and destroying their children’s confidence if they push them into something they are not good at, and this is where genetic testing can help,” he added.

Commercialised genetic testing: An ongoing debate

Like all newly-emerging trends, such commercial genetic testing is still being debated.

According to the manager of Martime Gene who gave his surname as Dang, the genetic results of the children are compared with a national gene bank and findings from foreign experts. He highlighted one success story of a boy who was identified with a talent for singing, and later became a student of Leo Ku, one of Asia’s most famous performers.

However, not all results are positive. Zhou Xian was told by 1Gene that her one-year-old daughter could become depressed and suffer from bad eyesight. “I think it could be accurate. I have found my daughter has a bad temper and is very stubborn,” she said.

A panel published a statement in 2015 concluding that the scientific evidence supporting the tests are “simply far too weak to back their use”, and ethical issues have been raised regarding the right of children to have an open future.

Mike McNamee, a professor at Swansea University, commented, “Talent spotting is a gross over-simplification and overblown belief in the power of genetic technology wrapped up in a commercial enterprise.”

Technological advances outstrip the pace of implementing laws

In China, there are over 150 genomic firms, with 70% of them claiming to offer lifestyle-applicable genetic testing for a wide variety of traits, from the risk of developing acne to the level of extroversion of one’s ideal match.

The market for genetic testing in medical applications is already dominated by traditional gene technology firms which entered the market before 2012, leaving no room for newcomers to enter the competition. Hence, the commercialisation may speed up technological advancement as well as provide lower costs to consumers.

“These [tests] are an effective marketing method for firms offering services such as gene technology… [which] have suddenly become relevant, cheap and available for all of us,” said a researcher at Peking University.

China is pulling ahead of the US when it comes to advances in the field of genetic testing, but its technology may be outpacing its laws.

“At the moment, [the China Food And Drug Administration] doesn’t have clear guidelines […] on how to report, how to supervise consumer genetic tests,” said Gang Chen, from WeGene, one such consumer genetic testing start-up in Shenzhen. MIMS

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