PUBLIC HEALTH

Health and Wellness

US genetics start-up Color brings affordable cancer-risk testing to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 10:47am

US-based start-up Color has made its US$249 genetic test available in Hong Kong to help users identify increased cancer risk as the company looks to revolutionise the multimillion dollar genetics testing market in the Asia Pacific region.

Genetic testing allows users to know if they carry certain genetic mutations or markers putting them at higher risks of certain diseases, such as cancer. The predictive genetics testing market in Asia Pacific is estimated to be worth about US$223 million in 2016, according to market research firm Mordor Intelligence.

However, the cost of genetic testing still remains high, which makes testing for the broader population and in the public health sector impractical, according to Color co-founder Othman Laraki.

“Even though the cost of genetic testing has been going down every year, the cost of tests to people and the medical system has remained at about US$4000.” said Laraki, whose Color test is only a fraction of the cost of current genetics tests on the market.

The Color test kit, which requires users to send a saliva sample back to the company, analyses 30 genes that is linked to increased risk of diseases such as breast and prostate cancer. The company claims it performed a blinded study, detecting genetic variants of over 500 samples with 99.9 per cent accuracy.

Professor Sham Pak Chung, director for the Centre of Genomic Sciences for the University of Hong Kong said that despite the increasing evidence that certain gene mutations put individuals at a higher risk for cancer, many genetic tests are only available privately. However, the lowered cost of genetic testing will likely lead to the inclusion of genetic testing in the public health sector.

“Hong Kong is ... catching up, with plans to make genetic testing more available in the public health sector, but it takes time to come into practice,” he added. “It is a matter of having tests which are both high quality and cost-effective.”

Laraki said that Color has been able to push down the price of genetic testing greatly by combining the efforts of the world’s top biologists with leading computer scientists around the world.

“We’ve been able to reduce the cost of testing so dramatically by automating things that have traditionally been manually intensive and by inferring information using technology,” Laraki said, adding that the lower cost makes genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes more accessible to people. Carriers of these genes are susceptible to certain types of cancers, including breast, ovarian and prostrate cancer.

Hongkongers who wish to get tested with a Color kit have to order it through a physician, who would be able to order the test online for patients. Test results will then be available within two to three weeks after users send back a saliva sample, said Laraki.

Users will be able to follow up with their physicians on the results, and will also receive genetic counselling on what steps they should take next to protect their health if they are a carrier of a gene mutation.

Experts like Sham believe that genetic knowledge could make individuals more aware of the risks they are predisposed to, and thus could help affected individuals to adopt a more aggressive attitude towards getting the relevant tests to catch any onset of the disease, he said.

Sham also said that private companies providing genetic tests to the public could be positive, but requires quality assurance from authorities to put safeguards on genetic-testing companies.

Dr. Ava Kwong, chief of breast surgery at HKU, said that it is important to be careful when genetic tests offer testing across multiple genes at once, since there are certain gene mutations where further research is warranted in order to establish the associated risks or impact.

“Sometimes, there might be a [gene mutation] but doctors might not know what to do with it, or if there is anything clinically to offer the patient,” said Kwong.

“Patients should not expect that getting a genetics test done means that a clinician can give them a solution.”