Chinese Parents Take DNA Tests to See if Their Children will be Prodigies

İt has come to a point where even the local scientific community is concerned that increased consumer testing may “undermine the authority of these real genetic tests that can really help diagnose disease.”

Months after his daughter was born in 2017, Chris Jung left a test tube with his saliva in his company’s genetic testing lab in Hong Kong. Chris Jung had high ambitions for his baby and was looking for clues to the future in his DNA. She could become a prominent professional, she thought, possibly even a doctor.

But his plans changed after analysis by his company, Gene Discovery, suggested that his daughter had strong skills in music, math and sports – albeit with less ability to memorize details. As the child grows older, Chris Jung says he will invest resources in developing these talents, while pushing him away from professions that require a lot of memorization.

Gene Discovery is among a wave of companies looking to meet this growing demand, playing the role of today’s fortune tellers, with DNA as their crystal ball. A search of the Chinese online shopping platform JD.com and Mandarin Internet shows dozens of companies offering genetic testing for infants and newborns. Their promises are equally high, promising to help parents discover their children’s “potential talents” in everything from logic and math to sport and even emotional intelligence. Helping your child to “win at the starting line” is a common marketing refrain.

 

In a society like China, where 15 million babies were born last year, the appeal is clear. But many of the claims of these start-ups – that DNA can be used to gauge their ability to memorize data, tolerate stress or show leadership – are more horoscopes than real science. Critics say that in many cases even science-based claims such as autism risk assessment are based on initial research that is not yet fully understood.

 

“There is no scientific basis on which to say these things with any degree of certainty,” said Gil McVean, a University of Oxford geneticist and director of the Big Data Institute. The center focuses on analyzing genetic and biological data to prevent and treat disease.

 

Gene Discovery executives say they are not giving direct or conclusive advice – they only present potential risks and talents that parents can use as a reference in a hypercompetitive culture. After decades of stringent population control laws that were repealed in 2016, most Chinese parents still have only one child who is the focal point of their ambitions.

 

“DNA testing can be one of the drivers and the motivation, so parents can provide their children with more focused resources,” Jung said. The tests sold on the Gene Discovery website cost $ 4,500 Hong Kong (about 520 euros) and include an “i-Genius package” to test young children’s talents.

Making China one of the world’s scientifically advanced nations is central to President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make China an undisputed world power, but few things illustrate the challenges ahead of China’s fascination with genetics. Largely free from the regulations and scrutiny observed in the US and other developed countries, China’s genetic advances often test the limits of science and bioethics. Last year, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, created the world’s first genetically altered babies, sparking global protests and worrying the country might usher in an era of human germline editing – where genetic modification is passed on for generations. future changes forever.

 

And for all the reports of Chinese scientists who are making genuine medical advances, such as editing genes for the annihilation of a superbug, there are more eyebrow experiments: researchers cloning monkeys born with edited genes to trigger mental illness using CRISPR (Genetic Editing Tool) to create an ultra-muscular beagle dog or “super monkeys” by injecting their brains with human DNA.

 

DNA is the code that the human body executes and determines a lot about who we are. But scientists are still working to understand this code, with many characteristics not caused by one or two genes – but hundreds or possibly thousands. An individual’s experiences and environment also play an important role in training whether they are math geniuses or develop cancer.

 

A person’s DNA does not alone determine who that person is. And having a particular gene cannot predict its future. It can only suggest the likelihood of developing a condition or characteristic. A study cited in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2003 found a convincing link between a variant of the ACTN3 gene and elite athletes such as sprinters, but studies have since found that while most sprinters have this variant, not all who do. own are elite athletes.

 

Similarly, having a harmful BRCA mutation, commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer, does not mean that a person will develop the disease. It just means that the risk is higher than others without this variant.

 

In recent years, genetic testing and other screening methods have led to advances in assessing cancer risk in adults or in diagnosing conditions such as Down’s syndrome in the womb. But in China, companies are pushing this forward, promising to provide a vision of life beyond the womb that today’s science generally can’t stand.

After the baby was born in 2017, Zhou Xiaoying went to a postpartum center where she was attended by a team of women, cooks and traditional healers – as is customary in China for mothers with higher mobility. There, a sales representative from a genetic testing company made a tempting offer: for about $ 1,500, the company collected saliva from his son’s mouth to peek into its future.

 

The test, which also looked at the baby’s predisposition to genetic disease, told Zhou that her son would probably be talented in music and the arts – but weak in sports. Zhou says his two-year-old son can hum a song in tune after hearing it once, and his family is moving to a larger house where he wants to cultivate his talents. Zhou has withdrawn his son from running and swimming classes and instead plans to buy a piano and start school soon.

 

“I wanted to know about his talents in the future so I could set a direction for him,” said Shanghai’s mother, who worked in the financial sector. “If you believe in the results, you can use it as a reference. If not, that’s fine because it doesn’t hurt.”

 

Chinese tradition emphasizes the importance of developing the next generation, while technological advances fuel national obsession with DNA, said Wang Zhaochen, professor of bioethics at Zhejiang University.

But it has come to a point where even the local scientific community is concerned that increased consumer testing may “undermine the authority of these real genetic tests that can really help diagnose disease,” Wang Zhaochen said.

 

“There’s no way a DNA test can say anything meaningful about complex traits,” said Timothy Caulfield, a bioethics and health policy expert at the University of Alberta who specializes in genetics. “And these parents are changing their children’s lives.”