Chinese parents check DNA to see if their kids can be turned into prodigies
Some experts say DNA tests don't say anything meaningful about complex traits, but parents in China still hope to use the information to nudge their kids in the right direction
Months after his daughter’s birth in 2017, Chris Jung dropped off a test-tube of her saliva to his company’s genetic testing lab in Hong Kong. He had grand ambitions for the baby, and was seeking clues to the future in her DNA. She might become a prominent professional, he thought, possibly even a doctor.
But Jung’s plans shifted after analysis by his firm, Gene Discovery, suggested his daughter had strong abilities in music, math and sports — though a lesser aptitude for memorizing details. As the little girl grows up, Jung said he will pour resources into developing those talents, while steering her away from professions that require a lot of memorization.
“Originally, I would like her to become a professional like a doctor or lawyer,” said Jung, chief operating officer of Good Union Corp., the parent company of Gene Discovery. “But once I looked into the results, it talked about how her memory is so bad. I switched my expectations because if I would like her to become a professional, she needs to study a lot and remember a lot.”
Gene Discovery does brisk business hawking DNA tests out of a warren of rooms in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, near stores selling Prada bags and Dior watches. More than half of its clients are from China’s mainland, where parents eager to shape their offspring into prodigies are fueling the advance of a growing but largely unregulated industry. It’s a Chinese version of helicopter parenting that reflects the country’s tendency to push the boundaries when it comes to genetics, part of a broader race to dominate the field with ramifications for how the life-altering science is used throughout the world.
DNA Crystal Ball
While gaining in popularity across the globe, consumer genetic testing is booming in China. Delaware-based research firm Global Market Insights Inc. sees sales of DNA testing services tripling to $135 million by 2025 from $41 million last year. Others, like Beijing-based consultancy EO Intelligence, project an even faster surge in the market, to $405 million in 2022. EO Intelligence also forecasts that by then, some 60 million Chinese consumers will be using DNA testing kits, up from 1.5 million people last year.
For now, the Chinese market is a fraction of the $300 million in the US, but the company expects the country’s growth to edge ahead, with annual sales growing nearly 17% through 2025 compared to 15% in the US, according to Global Market Insights.
Gene Discovery is among a wave of companies seeking to cater to that rising demand, playing the role of modern-day fortune tellers, with DNA as their crystal ball. A search of Chinese online shopping platform JD.com and the internet in Mandarin throw up dozens of firms offering genetic talent testing for babies and newborns. Their promises are similarly lofty, vowing to help parents uncover their children’s “potential talents” in everything from logic and math to sports and even emotional intelligence. Help your child “win at the starting line” is a common marketing refrain.
In a society like China, which saw 15 million babies born last year, the appeal is clear. But many of the claims from these newly minted companies — that DNA can be used to assess ability to memorize data, tolerate stress or show leadership — are more horoscope than actual science. Critics say that in many cases even those claims rooted in science, like assessing the risk of autism, are based on early-stage research that is not yet fully understood.
“There’s not a scientific basis on which you can say those things with any degree of certainty,” said Gil McVean, an Oxford University geneticist who’s the director of the Big Data Institute. The center focuses on analyzing genetic and biological data to prevent and treat diseases.
Gene Discovery’s executives say they aren’t giving direct or conclusive advice — only laying out potential health risks and talents parents can use as a reference in a hyper-competitive culture. 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.
“DNA tests can be one of the drivers and the motivator, so parents can provide more focused resources to their kids,” said Jung. Tests sold on Gene Discovery’s website cost HKD$4,500 ($575) and include an “i-Genius package” to test toddlers for talents.
Making China one of the world’s most scientifically advanced nations is key to President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make the country an indisputable world power, but few things illustrate the challenges that throws up than China’s fascination with genetics. Largely unencumbered by the regulations and scrutiny seen in the US and other developed countries, China’s genetic strides often test the limits of science and bioethics. Last year, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, created the world’s first genetically altered babies, sparking a global outcry and concern the nation might usher in an era of human germline editing — where genetic modifications are passed on to future generations, altered forever.
And for every report of Chinese scientists making genuine medical breakthroughs, such as gene-editing the annihilation of a superbug, there are the more eyebrow-raising experiments: researchers cloning macaques born with genes edited to trigger mental illness, using CRISPR to breed ultramuscular beagles, or creating “super monkeys” by injecting their brains with human DNA.
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. 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. One highly-cited 2003 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics 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.
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 companies are taking that further, promising to deliver insight on life beyond the womb that current science often doesn’t support.
Peeking Into Future
After her baby’s birth in 2017, Zhou Xiaoying checked into a postpartum center where she was taken care of by a staff of women, cooks and traditional healers — as is the custom in China for upwardly mobile mothers. There, a sales representative from a genetic testing firm made her a tantalizing offer: For about $1,500, the company would swab saliva from her son’s mouth to offer a peek into his future.
The test, which also analyzed the baby’s predisposition to genetic diseases, told Zhou her son was likely to be gifted in music and the arts — but weak in sports. Zhou says her now two-year-old son can hum a song in tune after hearing it once, and the family is moving into a bigger house where she intends to cultivate his talents. Zhou pulled the boy out of running and swimming classes and instead plans to buy a piano and start him soon on lessons.
“I wanted to know about his talents in the future so that I can set a direction for him,” said the Shanghai mom, who used to work in the financial industry. “If you believe the results, then you can use it as a reference. If you don’t, that’s fine because it doesn’t hurt.”
Chinese tradition stresses the importance of developing the next generation, while technological advances have fueled the national obsession with DNA, said Wang Zhaochen, a bioethics lecturer in Zhejiang University.
But it’s reached a point where even the local scientific community are becoming concerned that the rise of consumer testing could “damage the authority of those real genetic tests that can really help diagnose diseases,” he said.
Though the increasingly competitive nature of child-rearing is also felt in places like the US — with the college admissions scandal evidence of those pressures at work — talent testing of toddlers and babies is yet to catch on.
In America and Europe, most consumers who take DNA tests are looking for analysis on their ancestry and health risks. The US 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 US 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 medical risks for everything from cancer to mental disorders, but no clear rules to regulate them. A representative for the country’s National Health Commission said it doesn’t regulate companies offering the tests.
In Hong Kong, which just requires medical labs and those who provide genetic testing to comply with a medical registration ordinance, questions are being asked. Ramon Yuen Hoi-man, the healthcare policy vice spokesman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, lodged complaints this spring with agencies in the territory, concerned genetic companies offering talent testing are misleading consumers about the limitations of the tests and exaggerating the benefits of the analysis. The Food and Health Bureau has formed a steering committee to look into the regulatory and ethical issues around consumer genetic testing.
“There’s just no way a DNA test will tell you anything that’s meaningful about complex traits”
Sharon Shi, a finance professional based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, took a train across to Hong Kong and spent nearly $4,600 to have her three-year-old tested by a company called DNA WeCheck. The company sent her a report as thick as a book. Shi, who spends a lot of time planning her daughter’s education, said the analysis helped her understand why the girl likes making up lyrics and painting free-style.
The test also told Shi that the toddler has an above-average risk of “sudden cardiac death.” To strengthen the little girl’s heart, DNA WeCheck recommended foods like celery and the edible fungus that’s used in Chinese cooking. Members of her husband’s family do have a history of heart disease, so she wasn’t surprised by the finding. While research suggests a strong link between sudden cardiac death and genetics, it’s still not fully understood.
Gene Discovery’s parent company, Good Union, sells aesthetic medical equipment, skin-care and hair-care services, and added DNA testing two years ago after executives noticed demand for talent testing among their friends. The firm, like other genetic testing companies, compares 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, it says it can identify which specific genetic variations are linked to diseases and certain conditions.
To determine whether a child is at risk of developing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Gene Discovery zeroes in on the BDNF gene, which produces instructions for manufacturing a brain protein. But the two studies the company says it bases its determinations on were at least a decade old and were conducted in the US, the U.K. and Ireland. CBT Gene, the Hong Kong company that conducts testing and analysis of Gene Discovery’s kits, said it continues to use the BDNF gene since there is more current research that associates the gene as an increased risk factor for ADHD, and cited a scientific research paper published in 2016 that makes the case. It’s also possible that as the company’s research database is updated, CBT may revise its model for ADHD prediction and add other genes, said Chief Technology Officer Jay Liang.
Still, some health experts aren’t convinced.
“There’s just no way a DNA test will tell you anything that’s meaningful about complex traits,” said Timothy Caulfield, a bioethicist and health policy expert at the University of Alberta who specializes in genetics. “And these parents are changing their kids’ lives.”