How would knowing the secret to our genes help consumers, businesses, and the healthcare industry as a whole?
by Dr. Iri Sato-Baran
DNA and at-home genetic testing kits are terms that are widely searched and talked about in today’s digitally connected era where information moves faster than ever before.
Increasingly, consumers in Asia are turning towards genetic science to learn more about themselves and make informed decisions about nutrition, fitness and overall preventive wellness.
Despite the numerous options coupled with technology and Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets empowering consumers to track their health, there still lacks the macroenvironmental consideration of true personalisation of healthcare and within that, medicine. So how exactly would knowing the secret to our genes really help consumers, businesses, and the healthcare industry as a whole?
Let’s break it down
While most scientists would associate the dawn of genetic research to the founders of the double helix - Watson and Click in 1973, many do not know that the Year 2020 will mark the 100th year since the word genome was formulated in 1920 by Hans Winkler, professor of botany at the University of Hamburg, Germany.
Genome is a blend of the words, gene and chromosomes. With a century already behind us, we are now entering a new era in which genetic testing is becoming a commoditised practice as testing prices have dropped drastically since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, which gave us the first view of the whole genome.
Now that the medical community, patients and consumers can view their full genome and have the potential to store that information in a cloud where everyone has seamless access via their personal smartphones - what is really stopping us from taking that next big leap?
The real challenge facing our diverse Asian nations is the race to interpret the genetic blueprint that causes the onset of lifestyle diseases which varies by ethnic groups and personal habits. This is also coupled with the lack of consumer knowledge about the benefits such insights can bring to the greater human mankind.
With developed nations suffering from rising medical costs due to an increasing ageing population leading to the higher onset of lifestyle diseases, decoding genetic science to personalised medicine has never been more important, as it will have significant economic impact.
Leveraging genetic science to improve preventive and personal healthcare
The good news is that hope is just around the corner for genetic disorders that are not supported by modern human therapeutics via the breakthrough of gene therapy and cell editing technology, such as CRISPR.
As humans have conquered many ailments through the invention of vaccines, the vision that one day in the future, all genetic disorders can be eradicated is hopeful due to the breakneck pace this industry is moving.
For instance, it used to cost $1 million and several months to sequence a full genome. Now, it takes several days and less than $1,000.
Addressing genetic testing accuracy and use of personal genetic information
While the full genome era sounds promising, there are two areas of great importance going forward to gain positive momentum and ensure market confidence entails assessing scientific accuracy of genetic testing and technology and how genetic information is obtained and utilised.
Firstly, while genetic disorders such as familial breast cancer or Huntington disease [that are based on recessive gene, rare or familial diagnosis and rooted by a single “hot spot mutation”] are easily identifiable from a genetic screening, the predictable prognosis is undeniable.
Secondly, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes or hypertension, which involve various variations and combinations of gene interactions that could be influenced by ethnicity and lifestyle factors (or phenotypes) are not easily predictable, and may need the genetic makeup to be validated by a mass population database.
Genesis Healthcare, headquartered in Japan is one of the oldest genetic testing and research company in Asia. They obtain and validate genetic information from both consumers and medical/academia. They assemble genetic information from both healthy and symptomatic individuals which allows them to map the healthy against the symptomatic for both genotypes and environmental influences for lifestyle diseases among a single population in an ethnic group.
Privacy is a major issue when it comes to personal genetic information. Genetic information is arguably one of the few, if only information that is shared in a sense that, unlike other medical or personal information, it is not only about the individual.
The closer the relationship with the individual, the more information is shared. Take for instance a Japanese national who will share more genetic information with a Japanese than an Icelander. Or, a mother may share more information with her relative, family or ethnic group, and such shared nature of genetic information is out of fit with the individual choice model which we are predominantly accustomed to in this digital age.
When addressing privacy of their own genetic information, individuals may not think this might impact the well-being of others. However, the nature of genetics is such that knowledge of an individual’s genetic information can influence the well-being of others, whether it be family, or the general public.
Thus, it is one of the very few privacy related data that demands social ethics and responsibility by the person with ownership of their personal information. Imagine the impact on research when sharing of DNA information becomes less of a perceived taboo but more a norm to help the wider society work towards better healthcare outcomes, together.
The rising sun for the genetics industry
With the dawn of full genome testing just around the corner, consumers are increasingly becoming empowered to take ownership of their health more proactively through AI operating from their genetic information. Physicians would not have to rely only on experience in selecting which pharmaceutical drugs would be effective for the patient, and consumers, patients and physicians would know when and which diseases would occur before it even happens.
Watching such transcendence in technological development allows us to conclude that the genetic industry is currently at a pivotal point as we see more doors opening for new drug discovery for genetic disorders and rare diseases, personalised medicine, early detection and prevention.
We have a vision, within a decade, sharing of genetic information will result in a self-sustaining shared economy model of eradicating diseases that are common to populations globally. And in the decades, many of the suffering patients born with irreversible genetic disorders find hope and happiness to see their symptoms eradicated through upcoming technologies such as gene therapy and editing.
Dr. Iri Sato-Baran is the co-founder and president at Genesis Healthcare.