With the increasing demand for personalisation in just about every lifestyle facet, healthcare is also no stranger to the tailor-made approach — and what could be more personal than your genetic makeup?
With the convenience of a simple saliva swab, at-home DNA testing kits have become all the rage lately, with basic tests in Hong Kong priced from under HK$1,500 through to nearly HK$30,000 for more premium services.
DNA tests offer a personalised profile of how your body was born to function, from whether you are predisposed for illnesses such as cancer and diabetes, to looking at how your body processes certain foods, to how well you cope with exercise and stress.
One of the most popular current DNA test providers is US-based 23andMe, which launched in 2007. It is billed as a service that gives curious users a look at their ancestral makeup. Its bank of genetic markers continually expand to offer new details on physical and personality traits, and even offer the opportunity for users to reach out to DNA relatives on a map, though most of the data is confined to the US. The results from the DNA test are sent via email to access an online profile.
However, the idea of offering your DNA information to a company has always come hand in hand with rising privacy concerns. In 2018, 23andMe announced it was working with GlaxoSmithKline, giving the pharmaceutical giant access to DNA data to help develop new drugs. In the same year, 23andMe was also cited to work with the police force, helping to catch one of California’s most prolific serial murderers, the Golden State Killer. Despite claiming that the information given to 23andMe is kept anonymised and that customers are able to opt out of data sharing, the fact that a company can potentially share its data with advertisers, insurance companies, law enforcement, or any other entity, is ethically worrying — even if it ended up being for a greater good.
Earlier last month, it was recently reported that 23andMe had to cut 100 jobs, about 14 percent of its workforce, due to the market downturn, which spokespersons say are largely caused by an increase in concerns for privacy.
In Hong Kong and the Asia-Pacific region, however, popularity for at-home DNA testing is as high as ever, with a market projected to reach a value of US$2.48 billion by 2024, as reported in an article by the South China Morning Post.
Founded in 2014, Alibaba-funded startup Prenetics launched its consumer-based test kits CircleDNA, which touts itself as the world’s most comprehensive DNA test, offering more than 500 reports from a single saliva swab. It also boasts 99.9% analytical accuracy with its Whole Exome Sequencing technology. There are different products aimed at users with different needs, whether it be for family planning or to better understand their innate health risks. Each product comes with a 30-minute phone consultation with a genetic counsellor or health coach.
At holistic wellness clinic LifeHub, DNA test kits are also offered with results illuminating the user’s optimum diet and metabolic profile, detoxification processes, as well as health and lifestyle triggers, not to mention the body’s potential for skin rejuvenation among other topics. LifeHub’s services come with a consultation with a naturopathic doctor who explains your results.
It would seem that the trick to creating a sustainable, popular product is in offering services that actually help demystify the data, and make it truly applicable to the user’s day-to-day lifestyle.
“It’s actually all about the application to your own lifestyle,” says Dr Michael Barnish, the Global Head of Genetics and Nutrition and lead global trainer at Reviv. “It’s that service and support as opposed to just getting a genetic result and not really doing much with it.”
Known for their intravenous therapies and vitamin-packed booster shots, Reviv is in the business of preventative healthcare, rather than curing patients only as symptoms and illnesses surface. The company has enlisted Dr. Barnish’s help to launch their very first lifestyle genetic test service, which has been available since last autumn.
Reviv’s claims it offers the highest DNA test accuracy on the market at 99.97 percent. “A lot of other tests have less accuracy,” said Dr. Barnish. “It’s about being able to find the actual locations of the genes: Not all the locations that we use to assess have markers, so why we get such high accuracy is about the type of testing we do.”
On top of top-notch accuracy and tests processed in a facility in the UK — one of six in the world that holds a high ISO 15189 accreditation for medical laboratory standards — Reviv’s new genetics arm offers a quick lab test turnaround time from six to eight weeks. Customers then receive a PDF and a completely personalised bound book containing all their details and lifestyle recommendations. Clients also get a follow-up doctor’s consultation, and Reviv can help with a range of customer service aftercare, such as referring you to a nutritionist or coach.
Reviv also offers oral supplements tailored to your needs, that are available for subscription. “We can figure out to the 0.2 milligrams of what your requirements are for vitamin A, vitamin C, coenzyme Q-10 for example, and we can make those in a daily sachet.” These are formulated for timed release, to make sure nutrients won’t be competing with each other during absorption.
There is also the possibility down the line of creating a personalised skincare regimen too, Dr. Barnish adds.
Most importantly, what sets Reviv’s services apart from other DNA test kits so far is its stringent vouch for privacy: all DNA samples are destroyed after they are processed, the results are kept on secure encrypted servers, and they don’t sell any data to third parties.
For this higher level of attention, privacy and personalised service, naturally it comes with a higher price tag. Reviv’s tests start from US$995 (HK$7,729) for a beauty DNA profile, which looks at key traits that can help your skin stay youthful, all the way to a US$2,995 (HK$23,260) test, which offers a comprehensive profile of your health, weight management and what impacts your nutrition.
“We match health, weight, performance to a thousand different foods — down to the ingredient like ginger, or a meal like chicken curry. We’ll tell you how well you absorb things, detoxify things. We integrate everything into your lifestyle. Whether you gain weight from carbs or fats; what the optimum ratio is for your genetic type. If you’re going to need medication, it’s good to know that you’re actually going to benefit from them or not overdose from them. There are one in five drug deaths in the world a year are caused due to medication error, and genetics will be the answer to [remedying that]. We look at things that you can actually overcome with lifestyle changes. We could figure out whether it’s pollution, if you’re not good at detoxifying very well, if you need higher levels of B vitamins. We’ve done all the hard work for you.”
“It’s for people who want to prevent ageing and diseases as much as possible and live a long healthy life, for people who want to start their children off healthy habits as soon as possible; for children who show genetic sporting talent — we can figure out early what that talent is and really nurture them in it. People who have pre-existing diseases and want answers. For athletes who want better performances, we can look at how your muscles are built, and figure out how to fuel it.”
Elsewhere in the world, DNA tests are also beginning to be used in matchmaking services. For example, Swiss company Gene Partner, as well as its Tokyo-based subsidiary Gene Partner Japan, are using a specific technique to determine attraction between singles. Looking at the differences in applicants’ human leukocyte antigen, or HLA gene, the greater the difference between two people’s HLA molecules, the more attractive they might find one another. The HLA gene is also related to the science behind pheromones, and can help explain why certain people feel an instant connection upon their first meeting.
Of course, looking at genes alone only presents a couple’s potential biological compatibility. Partnered with non-HLA-based factors such as appearance, hobbies and interests, and compatibility in fertility, these matchmaking services aim to help singles find someone best suited for a long term marriage.
It’s only a matter of time before genetics research gets even more applicable in our daily lives. “This is just a start, but in 20 years time, genetics will be embedded into all of our lives,” Dr. Barnish says.
For more information, visit Reviv here.