Couples may be offered DNA tests before having children in Hong Kong to detect hereditary diseases

Proposed scheme to also provide genetic counselling on what parents can do to mitigate risks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 August, 2015, 11:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 8:30am

A proposed research project at Queen Mary Hospital could allow prospective parents to undergo "affordable" DNA testing to identify hereditary health conditions in advance though genetic sequencing.

Pre-pregnancy DNA tests will be offered to couples to help them find out if they are at risk of passing on hereditary diseases to children they conceive and will also provide genetic counselling on what they can do to mitigate these risks.

DrGene, the Israel-based company behind the scheme, says it hopes to spread awareness of genetic testing throughout Hong Kong and Asia and "to make people healthier".

"Five to ten per cent of cancers are hereditary … unfortunately the only way to really fight cancer is by early detection," said founder and CEO Lital Isaacs, adding that one in six Hongkongers is a carrier of genetic diseases. "The biggest challenge in Hong Kong is [to promote] awareness of such testing."

A spokesman for Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam said its obstetrics and gynaecology department and the University of Hong Kong were jointly planning the research, but it had not yet been approved.

Issacs said the pre-pregnancy DNA tests would be subsidised by the company and cost under HK$3,500. The one-year project could start next month.

DrGene recently introduced a new range of ethno-specific DNA tests tailored for Han Chinese in cancer and hereditary diseases. Genomes of various ethnic groups feature different genetic breaks, meaning some markers are more significant than others.

The hereditary screening detects more than 170 inherited health conditions, while its cancer risk assessment looks at a panel of 17 genes, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are associated with ovarian and breast cancers. Actress Angelina Jolie revealed this year she had preventative surgery after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene.

"This test aims to make sure your baby does not inherit any genetic diseases," said Isaacs. "We feel this is good parenting … in Hong Kong, there's no reason why babies should be born with thalassemia [a blood disorder]."

Tests kits consist of simple mouth swabs, which are sent to labs in the US. The raw genetic data is fed to its scientific team in Israel for analysis and results are sent back to customers in about five weeks.

The pre-pregnancy DNA testing kits cost about HK$3,500 and are available at clinics or for online order. Isaacs said she believed the prices were "affordable" enough for the mass market but expected prices to drop as technology progressed and the industry developed.

Government investment promotion body InvestHK, which helped DrGene set up in the city last year, said the company would bring new skills and know-how in unique gene testing technology to Hong Kong.