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Profiting on pregnant women's fears: prenatal testing in Japan

A noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) kit is seen in Tokyo on Dec. 15, 2018. (Mainichi/Norikazu Chiba)

TOKYO -- There is a state-of-the-art medical company based in Tokyo's Azabu Juban district. Its president, Shinichi Kurihara, proudly states, "If our facilities were available nationwide, pregnant women would not have to take on the heavy burden of traveling long distances."

The steep rise in the number of uncertified medical facilities that provide noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) against Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (JSOG) policy has become a problem. A Mainichi Shimbun survey has revealed that there were at least 40 such facilities as of the end of July this year, of which approximately 90% were not obstetric or gynecological clinics. Kurihara's company bundle together some 50% of the facilities, and is aiming to expand further.

NIPT estimates the possibility of a fetus having a chromosomal abnormality using the pregnant woman's blood. Kurihara's company serves as a broker, calling on cosmetic surgery clinics and other medical institutions to participate in the testing by drawing pregnant customers' blood. The collected blood is then sent to testing firms in the U.K. and elsewhere via international courier service. The fee depends on what type of information the pregnant woman wants, but runs around 200,000 yen each time. Nearly half of that turns into profit, which the company splits with the facility that did the blood draw.

Sample results of noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) are seen in Tokyo on Dec. 15, 2018. (Mainichi/Norikazu Chiba)

At the office in Azabu Juban, young employees are busy handling phone calls. Inquiries from pregnant women, reservations for blood draws and the collection of blood samples are all managed here, in one place.

Kurihara, who is in his 30s, used to work at a trading firm; last summer, he founded his medical testing company. He's a young entrepreneur who's been introduced in a book called "Kokkai giin ga chumoku suru 26 sha" (Twenty-six companies that lawmakers are paying attention to).

"I'm aware that there is debate on the ethical aspect of these tests," Kurihara says. "But I want to change the current situation in which pregnant women who want to take these tests can't."

When asked about his company's profits, he showed a different side to his motivation. "How could this business possibly put us in the red?" he said.

The use of NIPT has been called by some as "the screening of life." The backdrop against the increase in the facilities providing NIPT is the existence of the world's testing firms that are fighting for the fast-growing market, and brokers calling on medical facilities to bring in customers.

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department, and Asako Kamihigashi, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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