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Consumer genetics boom in China

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    26th Nov, 2019

In recent years, genetic testing and other screening methods have led to breakthroughs in assessing cancer risk in adults, or diagnosing conditions like Down syndrome in-utero. But in China, gene-testing companies are taking it further, promising to deliver insights on life beyond the womb and if kids will become prodigies. It is important to assess the ethical connotations of this.

Issue

Context

In recent years, genetic testing and other screening methods have led to breakthroughs in assessing cancer risk in adults, or diagnosing conditions like Down syndrome in-utero. But in China, gene-testing companies are taking it further, promising to deliver insights on life beyond the womb and if kids will become prodigies. It is important to assess the ethical connotations of this.

Background:

  • Chinese parents increasingly test DNA to check if kids will become prodigies.
  • A wave of newly-minted companies is on the rise, which promises to uncover children’s “potential talents” in everything from logic and math to sports and even emotional intelligence.
  • Chinese parents are eager to shape their offspring into prodigies, and this is fuelling the advance of a growing but largely unregulated industry of gene-testing.
  • It’s a Chinese version of helicopter parenting that reflects the country’s tendency to push the boundaries when it comes to genetics.
  • While gaining popularity across the globe, consumer genetic testing is booming very fast in China. It suggests a broader race to dominate the field with ramifications for how the life-altering science is used throughout the world.
  • China's smaller genetic testing market is catching up with the U.S. in its growth. For now, the Chinese market is a fraction of the U.S., but studies suggest that it will be a more than 100 million dollar business by 2025.
  • China being the most populated country, which sees millions of babies born each year, the potential for DNA testing industry is big as the number of Chinese consumers using DNA testing kits is expected to rise manifold.
  • There is also a rise of online presence of firms offering genetic talent testing for babies and new-borns.
  • Chinese leadership has been keen on making China one of the world’s most scientifically advanced nations, which is also seen as the key to make China an indisputable world power.

Analysis

Why is gene testing popular with Chinese parents?

  • Chinese tradition stresses the importance of developing the next generation, while technological advances have fuelled the national obsession with DNA.
  • After decades of strict population control laws that were repealed in 2016, most Chinese parents still only have one child who is the focal point of their ambitions.
  • Using gene-testing, Chinese parents attempt to focus and resources on those talents in which their child is naturally gifted in.
  • Under such conditions, it is easy for Chinese parents to fall for marketing catch phrases which ask parents to help their child “win at the starting line”.
  • These tests also analyse baby’s predisposition to genetic diseases.

How does gene-testing work?

  • The genetic testing companies compare customers’ genetic data with that of reference populations in public databases and publicly available research linking genes and diseases.
  • By comparing snippets of one genome to others, they claim to identify which specific genetic variations are linked to certain diseases and certain traits.

How reliable is DNA testing?

  • DNA is the code that the human body runs on and it determines much about who we are. But scientists are still working to understand that code, with many characteristics not caused by one or two genes—but hundreds or possibly, thousands of genes.
  • An individual’s experiences and environment also play a major role in shaping, say, whether they’re a math genius or if they’ll develop cancer.
  • A person’s DNA doesn’t single-handedly determine who they are, and having a certain gene can’t predict your future. It can only suggest the likelihood of developing a condition or trait.
  • Majority of these gene testing companies offering talent testing are misleading consumers about the limitations of the tests and exaggerating the benefits of the analysis.
  • Many companies claim that DNA can be used to assess ability to memorize data, tolerate stress or show leadership. But critics argue that there’s not a scientific basis on which any claims can be made with certainty.
  • Even those claims rooted in science, like assessing the risk of autism, are based on early-stage research that is not yet fully understood.
  • Some researches completely dismiss the idea suggesting that there is just no way can a DNA test tell anything that’s meaningful about complex human traits.
  • One highly-cited study found a compelling link between a variant of the gene ACTN3 and elite power athletes like sprinters, but studies since have found that while most sprinters have that variant, not everyone who has it is an elite athlete.
  • Likewise, having a harmful mutation of the BRCA gene, commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer, doesn’t mean a person will ever develop the disease. It just means their risk is higher than others without that variant.

What is the industry’s defence?

  • Firms in the industry argue that they are not giving any direct or conclusive advice. They are only laying out potential health risks and talents which parents can use as a reference in a hyper-competitive culture.
  • DNA tests can be one of the drivers and motivator, so parents can provide more focused resources to their kids.

What are the risks?

  • While the gene testing industry in the US and other developed countries operate under stringent set of regulations and scrutiny, China’s gene testing industry is free of such checks.
  • China’s advance with genetics often tests the limits of science and bioethics. Following are a few examples:
    • Recently, a Chinese researcher created the world’s first genetically altered babies. Such development are a cause of concern because they might usher in an era of human germline editing—where genetic modifications are passed on to future generations, altered forever.
    • Chines researchers used gene-editing tool CRISPER to disable a gene in macaque monkeys that is crucial to their sleep–wake cycle. The scientists then cloned one of those monkeys to produce five primates with almost identical genes.
    • They attempted to create “super monkeys” by injecting their brains with human DNA.
  • These advances have now reached a point where the scientific community is becoming concerned that the rise of consumer testing could damage the authority of those real genetic tests that can really help diagnose diseases.

Cloning technique

The process of cloning is the same as used to clone Dolly the sheep. In this method, the DNA of a donor cell – in this case taken from an adult monkey whose genome had been edited – is injected into an egg that has had its own genetic material removed. The DNA reprograms into an embryonic state, from which specialized cells can form.

Cross-country comparison

  • Though the increasingly competitive nature of child-rearing is also felt in places like the U.S.—with extremely competitive college admissions—talent testing of toddlers and babies is yet to catch on as in China.
  • In America and Europe, most consumers who take DNA tests are looking for analysis on their ancestry and health risks.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate consumer tests focused on wellness, athletic ability or other talents, but does oversee those detecting the risk of diseases like cancer.
  • California-based 23andMe Inc. is the only company with permission to offer disease-risk DNA tests in the U.S. without the involvement of a doctor, and it was only allowed to do so after submitting its process for review to the FDA.
  • By contrast, China has dozens of firms selling tests that claim to give insights on almost everything, without there being any clear rules regulating the industry and the country’s National Health Commission also doesn’t regulate the companies offering these tests.

Conclusion

While genomics offer great potential in biomedical research, but it should be used with caution as it has potential risks in altering human genomes forever. Any activity in this field should not be without adequate regulatory oversight.

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