Genetic tests to boost medical tourism

Updated: 2016-02-23 09:07

By Wang Yuke in Hong Kong(HK Edition)

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Hong Kong may be well positioned to lead Asia in precision medicine medical tourism - as the advent of affordable genetic tests is expected to bring specific medical treatments within the reach of millions of patients.

Precision, or personalized, medicine through genetic tests would serve as a new benchmark in diagnosis, according to Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) School of Biomedical Sciences Professor Stephen Tsui Kwok-wing. Promising higher drug efficacy and fewer side effects, it will profoundly enhance patients' well-being.

Greater efficiency in targeting treatment based on a patient's unique genome would also translate to lower medical costs, he said. Patients would be spared from revisiting doctors due to ineffective treatment, or sampling other drugs which may do more harm than good to health.

Hong Kong could take the lead in using genetic factors when it came to healthcare while many other locales continue to rely on cruder metrics such as height, weight and age to determine medical decisions, Tsui said.

The city's competitive advantage in the incorporation of genetic information in practical medicine was rooted in the city's developed medical biotechnology sector. Hong Kong's position as a central transportation and communication hub in Asia would also play a role, Tsui said.

Biotech firm Prenetics CEO Danny Yeung said their newly opened clinic in Central provided genetic testing for precision medicine and claimed Singaporean companies offered similar services which were less comprehensive.

Yeung's ambition to propel Hong Kong as a center in the emerging field of precision medicine comes as clinicians and medical experts are urging local physicians to incorporate the rapidly emerging field to provide more personal attention and treatments.

Unique genetic characteristics and even slight differences in genetic make-up led to notable differences in terms of an individual's vulnerability to certain diseases and responses to treatment, Tsui said.

A large number of local residents have been failed by "one-size-fits-all" treatments leading to ineffective cures and adverse side-effects, according to a January University of Hong Kong public opinion survey. This found that 56 percent of 505 respondents had encountered ineffective treatment. Some 73 percent reported that medication prescribed by doctors did not work well for them.

The head of City University of Hong Kong's Department of Biomedical Sciences Professor Michael Yang said the effects of an identical dose of medication on different individuals could have dramatically different responses owing to differences in metabolism.

He said ignorance among physicians as well as the public of individual genetic traits explained why current medical practices were still sometimes inadequate.

CUHK department of medicine Adjunct Professor Brian Tomlinson emphasized the importance of continuous training in genetic analysis for established doctors in Hong Kong. He noted that newer doctors had already begun to embrace the importance of a patient's particular genetic information in their practices.

Genetic tests in Hong Kong have never been cheaper, according to Prenetics' Yeung, who said local laboratories had reduced prices from a peak when samples had to be sent overseas for testing.

CityU's Michael Yang said the affordability of detecting only particular genes associated with medical metabolism and disease brought locally conducted tests within the reach of the middle class. This would well serve those with chronic illness in Hong Kong and the mainland.

(HK Edition 02/23/2016 page7)