Having grown up in a society that encourages exceptionalism and aspired to its creed, it came as a surprise when I found myself much less disappointed than I thought I would be when Circle DNA reported that I am an exceptionally normal and average human being.
From its reports — delivered through its app — I learnt that I am on average likely to be addicted to alcohol, food, and smoking and to have obsessions with washing or cleanliness. I am also at average risk of having heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes, and suffering a stroke or getting obese. I am, however, a cut above the rest in terms of my elevated risk of getting allergic rhinitis and catching the flu. The former is hardly news given I’ve suffered from it most of my life, while being informed of the latter encourages extra precaution against Covid-19.
The Premium DNA Test, results of which I’ve over- shared, churns out more than 500 reports, including screening results for 36 types of cancers, 103 drug responses, and 163 reports on family planning. According to Danny Yeung, co- founder of Prenetics, the company behind Circle DNA, this is the future. “I believe the future of healthcare is going to be all about prevention and not treatment because if you consider what the whole healthcare system is like when you’re sick, you’re spending a lot of money on the best doctors,” he says. “But a lot of that can be avoided, and we know now that 40 to 80 percent of all cancers and diseases can be prevented.”
Yeung himself has benefited from the test. He discovered surprisingly that he is at an increased risk of getting colon cancer, despite having no family history of cancer. “What I did subsequently was to cut red meat from my diet. I lost around 9kg and started getting colonoscopies every two years from my mid-thirties, while paying more attention to my diet and lifestyle,” he says. “Most colon cancer cases are detected at stage two or three so that means it’s too late. By knowing earlier, I might prevent the disease but if I didn’t know the results, I would definitely wait until age 50 to do a colonoscopy because that’s the recommended age to start.”
The test also looks at carrier screening, which can identify genetic conditions that a couple may pass on to their children. Yeung explains: “If you and your partner have the same genetic mutation, the child has a 25 percent risk but (the solution) becomes very actionable with the knowledge derived from the test. You can elect to do IVF and select the embryo without that condition. Because with all the technological advancement, why take the risk?”
Circle DNA is on sale in Singapore at Watsons. Its entry-level Vital DNA Test offers reports on fitness, diet and lifestyle, while its Premium DNA Test offers a comprehensive understanding about genetic conditions and disease risk. But the swab test kit didn’t start off as a consumer product.
Co-founded in 2014 with genetics specialists Professor Michael Yang and Dr Lawrence Tzang, Prenetics — with its full range of certifications and accredited laboratory — originally provided testing services to insurance companies.
As the company grew — it raised over US$50 million ($67 million) in funding from Alibaba, 500 Startups, Beyond Ventures, and others — Yeung, a serial entrepreneur, pivoted to the consumer market. In July 2019, Circle DNA test kits hit the shelves of health and beauty retailer Watsons across Hong Kong. Prenetics now has 10 offices globally, including in Singapore.
“My role was really to look at how we could translate science to make it consumer- friendly and actionable,” says Yeung. “I think that is the challenge for science — because there are a lot of DNA testing companies across the globe that have failed, but it wasn’t due to the lack of science. It was because they couldn’t translate scientific material into consumer-friendly material that was accessible and easy to understand.”
The firm recently launched Project Screen by Circle, a Covid-19 testing initiative. In Hong Kong, staff from 16,000 restaurants in the city were screened, while in the UK Prenetics has landed a £4 million ($7 million) contract to screen the English Premier League’s 20 teams.
Hong Kong-based Yeung has ambitious plans. “By 2022, we want to impact one million people — at least in Asia. I really believe in the markets that we operate so I think that’s a realistic goal based on where we’re at,” he says. “We’re a global company now but I think we can grow an even bigger footprint globally, and set the example that Hong Kong can create a very successful biotech, digital health company.”
This story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of A Magazine.