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News Navigator: What is the genetic testing business?

This Aug. 29, 2017 file photo shows an example of a genetic screening test kit. After sending a saliva sample to the business operator, screening results will be delivered. (Mainichi)

Genetic screening tests that can be sent by mail to evaluate a persons' risk for certain illnesses are spreading in Japan, causing worry among medical experts. The Mainichi answers some common questions readers may have about the tests and the spread of the business.

    Question: What kind of test is a genetic screening test?

    Answer: Users take samples of saliva or do a mouth swab, and then send it by mail to have the business operator analyze the gene. Users can directly receive the results. The results are compared to data of an average sample group of Japanese people to determine if the user's risk of contracting certain diseases and other information, and disease risk is quantified in a variety of ways, such as "your risk of developing the disease is 1.5 times (higher than average)." The testing can cost anywhere between several thousand yen and tens of thousands of yen a try, and testing kits are easily available via online order.

    Q: Is it different from undergoing testing at a medical institution?

    A: Medical institutions can conduct diagnoses that are classified as medical care under the Medical Practitioners' Act, and do analysis that can pinpoint the genes responsible for patients' symptoms as well as predict with high accuracy a person's chance of coming down with an illness in the future based on certain genes. American actress Angelina Jolie made news when she had a mastectomy and her ovaries removed after finding out that she had a gene variation that increased the odds of her developing breast or ovarian cancer. That degree of testing is only possible at a medical facility.

    Q: Is there a lot of expectation for the genetic screening business?

    A: An industry group announced on Aug. 28 that the scale of the market was expected to surpass 150 billion yen. The Japanese government is anticipating the possibility of the tests taking on new value through being linked to lifestyle improvement and pharmaceutical research that makes use of the collected genetic information. Major information technology companies are also introducing the tests one after the other.

    Q: Can the results be trusted?

    A: The Japan Society of Human Genetics expressed concern, making the statement, "The interpretation of the results and the utility of the tests cannot be scientifically confirmed." The Japan Medical Association also views the tests as problematic. In a report released by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, there is an increase in complaints that diet or cosmetic products were recommended based on analysis results that said a customer was prone to gaining weight or that they have a certain skin type. The business operators also set their own standards and certification systems. There are also concerns that genetic data will lead to discrimination in hiring processes and health insurance enrollment, and careful handling of the matter is necessarily. (Answers by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department)

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