VICTORIA SEK | SINGAPORE
Truth be told, I can’t remember the time I did a full body checkup.
I don’t think it’s necessary because I’m young. Ish.
Recently, I have fallen ill more times than I’d like to but it’s usually the same old suspects like the flu, fever, and cough, so I never really worried.
I am aware, of course, that there are health issues that we may inherit from our parents or grandparents.
For instance, my maternal side of the family has a history of diabetes while a number of my paternal relatives have high blood pressure.
But this doesn’t mean I will be healthy forever even though I show no symptoms of such illnesses now.
When Korea-based genetic testing company Genoplan offered to let us try their kit, I was a quite excited, actually.
“Do I get to know my ancestry?! Would be so cool to know how many percent of Chinese I am,” I blabbed.
I learned quickly that Genoplan doesn’t trace ethnicity, but decodes our DNA so that we can take measures to prevent health issues like stroke or to keep obesity at bay.
To clarify, the kit is not a medical aid of any kind; it’s more like a health report that contains information on diseases one is likely to have based on one’s genetic compositions, among other details.
And all we need to do is to spit in a small plastic container and wait a few weeks to discover over 460 types of health information.
Genesis Of Genoplan
Founder Brian Kang Byung-kyu studied economics and went on to get a master’s degree from Boston University’s School of Medicine.
Samsung recruited him as a gene researcher and he worked three years before he quit to start his own business, a social enterprise that provides educational programmes for underprivileged children.
Kang moved on from that as it wasn’t sustainable and started up Genoplan with a KRW 10 million (about S$11,500) bank loan and a recruitment ad for a researcher.
Established in 2014, Genoplan had set out to provide a service that was lacking in Asia.
It’s Korea’s first startup to enter the direct-to-consumer DNA testing market.
“The West already has well-placed services and big data on the population, used in research. They lack in data from Asia,” Kang said in an interview.
“So we want to expand in Asia to collect Asia genome data for development of cancer treatment, the right cosmetics, or obesity treatments for the Asian population.”
Kang said in a 2016 Forbes interview that he finds obesity to be the biggest problem, and wishes to find a solution to it via Genoplan.
This is a necessity, in my opinion, as what would work for Westerners may not work well for Asians.
In 2016, Kang revealed that the company was eyeing expansion to Singapore, Taiwan, and China after opening a laboratory in Japan and establishing its dedicated research facility in Korea.
The company also received “more than $50 million of investment” from Japan’s SoftBank and Samsung Ventures just two years after it was founded.
His mission is to “rid of the notion that genetics and biology are difficult and not interesting” as well as the “stigma that gene analysis is only… done when people want to confirm paternity or reveal an affair”.
Genoplan focuses on areas such as wellness and beauty because he believes that by incorporating biotechnology into consumer-friendly markets, people will feel less daunted about having their DNA analysed.
“Gene analysis is done one time, but the result can be applied to so many parts of our lives and products,” he said.
“I want to link all the dots out there with biotechnology.”
He shared that in the long term, he wants his company to expand into inventing new medicine.
Kang said in 2016, “The biggest challenge for us right now, which I believe will apply to all bio companies out there, is to know what consumers want to do with their DNA information.”
“It is my job to think of what tangible outcome can be given to consumers and how much detail we can actually provide about their genes.”
In 2018, Genoplan raised a total of KRW 20 billion (about S$23 million) from participating investors, GC Green Cross Holdings, Daily Partners, and PIA Asset Management.
Earlier in January this year, Genoplan was reported to be working with Japanese and Singapore insurers to prepare insurance products “tailored to individuals”.
Now, Genoplan is making its move to provide health information through genetic analysis as well as disease-related information and commercialising it.
Spit And Test
Making its consumer debut in Singapore, Vulcan Post got first dibs to try out Genoplan’s DNA test kit.
The kit came in a stylish, white square box, and even includes a mailer from the local courier.
Instructions are easy to understand and follow but we suggest taking a look at it once first so you are clear on what to do.
Users are instructed to refrain from brushing their teeth, smoking, and consuming food and beverages for 30 minutes before taking the test.
First, we registered an account on Genoplan’s website and keyed in the 12-letter serial key number that’s located on the side of our saliva collection tube.
There’s actually the option of scanning the barcode but it did not work when we took the test at that time.
After the registration, we did a questionnaire on our daily habits and lifestyle, then proceeded to spit into the tube.
It was a slightly chaotic affair when all of us were spitting at the same time because each of us were astonished that we needed a lot of saliva to fill up the tube.
Once that was done, we poured in the blue saliva stabilisation buffer liquid into the tube and then shook the tube as instructed.
We then sealed our tubes into the individual return mailer bags and dropped them off at the mailbox.
And The Results Are…
A few weeks later, we received an email notification telling us that our genetic analysis is completed.We all felt a mixture of anticipation and excitement as we logged in to our Genoplan account to check out our reports.
My genetic analysis found that my top three cancers I’m likely to have are Multiple Myeloma (MM), lung cancer, and liver cancer.
I clicked on the MM tab and was shown a breakdown of what are the factors that would cause the development of the cancer.
As I scrolled down, I found more information regarding the disease and also how to prevent it from happening.
Under the General Disease tab, there are a number of categories that show the type of illnesses I’m susceptible to.
What’s also interesting to me, is that I have an aversion to certain types of drugs and a high dependence on alcohol.
The great news is that since I don’t have the need to take these drugs now, I won’t suffer any side effects, and that I hardly consume alcohol anyway.
I think another category that caught my eye was the ‘Mental Health’ one.
The top three mental health issues I am most likely to have are ADHD, OCD, and depression – NGL, I have experienced symptoms of these issues myself.
But what I found the most relatable is the information under the ‘Non-Disease’ tab.
I thought it was sort of mystical that my spit could tell me that I have a high tendency to snack, yet my likely ability to endure hunger and control my appetite is “slightly good”.
There are also nuggets of information that I find to be quite true, like my sensitivity to motion sickness; my tendency to stay up late; and that I’m likely to feel more itchiness when I get mosquito bites.
Overall, I think this is a rather useful product for people who are looking to seriously improve their lifestyle or for a motivation to get rid of their bad habits.
Genoplan is only taken once in your life, since it’s based on your DNA – you can’t change it.
The questionnaire can be taken again, though, so it’s good to check in once in a while or when you’ve made big lifestyle changes.
I see Genoplan as more of a supplement to full body checkups than a life sentence, so readers, do take note of this if you choose to try it.
My colleague Zafirah thinks it’s “incredulous that they can derive all these health information based on [her] spit alone”.
“It’s very hard for me to trust its accuracy, so I think it’ll be best for me to check against a full body health checkup.”
“In any case, I looked at the report and went ‘oOoOoo’ but I didn’t do anything concrete about it, like make an attempt to be healthier,” she added.
Jared said that it was “weirdly fun” to take the test and described it as “like a primary school science experiment”.
He agrees with Zafirah that he feels slightly apprehensive about the results but he doesn’t outright doubt the feasibility of the report.
“Feels a lot like a quiz I took online,” he shared.
On whether he learned anything from it, he said he didn’t know how to properly interpret the information so it didn’t motivate him to take any action.
“I feel like they need to do a better job of explaining the information instead of just expecting me to make sense of it myself.”
“Maybe highlight worrying figures into a single page and tell me what I should do? See doctor? Take blood test?” he suggested.
Alanna also found it difficult to decipher the meanings behind all the risk percentages and medical conditions despite the short description.
She also didn’t think she learned a great deal from the information she got.
As for Melissa, she shares my view that the submission for the completed test is convenient.
“The questionnaire was pretty long though, and I felt like they could just generate results (those ‘likelihood of getting diabetes’ types) from our answers, so…” she stated.
“Personally I was very excited to go through the results but I wasn’t even sure if I could trust them,” Melissa added.
“I’m the sort that has done more thorough (blood, pee) tests before, so having them tell me stuff I’ve never heard of/worried about before was kinda ‘eh’.”
She found herself paying more attention to the trivial stuff, like the breast size, more than the more important stuff.
In conclusion, all of my colleagues have the same view that there should be a report summary of what our report means and what our next steps should be.
The Genoplan service is fairly new here in Singapore, so I do expect them to come up with more features and maybe more insights over time.
VP Verdict is a series where we personally try and test out products, services, fads, and apps. Want to suggest something else for us to try? Leave a comment here or send the suggestion into our Facebook page.
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post