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In China, some parents seek an edge with genetic testing for tots

Questionable DNA “talent” tests find a market in up-and-coming Shenzhen.
February 19, 2019

In Shenzhen, even kindergartners have homework. You can see it in the workbook-laden backpacks weighing them down as they waddle through the school gates at 8 a.m. and back out again at 5 p.m. Many are not headed home yet. There are dance classes, piano lessons, English tutors, kung-fu sessions to get to. After classes, after dinner, it is time to tackle that homework. They are lucky to get to bed by 10.

Fears of seeing their children fall behind their peers have left Chinese parents searching for anything to give them a leg up.

Some are now turning to genetic testing companies that claim they can find children’s hidden talents within their DNA. There isn’t much scientific basis to the tests, but judging from the number of clinics sprouting up in cities like Shenzhen, it appears that “talent testing” is one reason for China’s fast-growing genetics industry.

I visited the office of China Bioengineering Technology Group (also called CBT Gene) on the 14th floor of a high-rise in Shenzhen’s Nanshan startup district. It is half medical clinic, half high-end spa. Glittering gold wallpaper covers the walls. Elegantly dressed sales agents share the space with serious-looking medical staff in white smocks. Besides genetic testing, the clinic offers everything from plastic surgery to a variety of traditional Chinese medicine treatments.

The day I visited, an agent produced a thick book listing over 200 indicators the clinic will test a child for. They include potential hereditary conditions; musical, mathematical, and reading abilities; physical talents; attributes like shyness, introversion, extroversion, and memory.

A genetic test sold in China claims to assess a child's mathematical abilities.

“We get around a hundred or two hundred parents testing each week,” the agent said. A complete genome sequence costs around $4,500, while a full battery of tests for hereditary conditions and talents is around $2,500. The simplest test, which looks at just 10 talent indicators, costs as little as $160.

“Most parents choose the full test so they can better understand their children,” the agent told me.

The genetic samples, gathered with a swab to the inside of the child’s cheek, are delivered to the company’s lab in Hong Kong for sequencing and then sent back to Shenzhen for analysis by the company.

Interest in DNA testing for children is growing in Shenzhen partly thanks to educators the industry has connected with. One big proponent is Chen Tiecheng, a principal of Xuefa Middle School, a short drive away from the clinic. He is pushing what he calls “happiness education,” based on finding and following the innate talents within each child.

“There’s a saying in China: ‘Don’t let your child lose at the starting line,’” Chen said during a meeting in his office at the school.

Chen has been giving public lectures on the value of allowing children to pursue their talents instead of pushing them through rigorous rote learning, if that does not fit their personality. His ideas include a heavy reliance on genetic talent tests, although even he admits that “the science might not be totally correct.”

“In the past you might dig a well and not find water, but now we have remote satellite technology that can tell you where the water is,” Chen says. “Genetic testing is a little like this—a way to more accurately find talent.”

In fact, there’s relatively little basis for assessing a kid’s “mathematical talent” on the basis of DNA, as reports from CBT Gene do. Nor did China invent this scientifically dubious industry. In the US, companies such as Orig3n offer “child development” tests for genes lined to language, math, and perfect pitch.

“Currently most of these kinds of genetic talent tests lack enough scientific evidence,” says Chen Gang, cofounder and CEO of WeGene, a company formed four years ago in Shenzhen that specializes in ancestry analysis. “We still cannot explain the complicated relationship between the genome and a lot of traits—for example, like IQ, music, and sports abilities.”

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is expanding so rapidly in China that Chen Gang fears talent testing could hurt the reputation of the industry. “These services do not represent the mainstream of China’s testing market,” he says.

WeGene’s CEO, however, is not ready to say talent tests will always be a sideline. He got his own son’s genome sequenced and is in the habit of seeing what the latest discoveries say about the youngster.

“When my wife and I read some literature on genomics and traits, we check it against our child’s genome, but that is just out of curiosity, we don’t ask our boy the change his interests according to his genome,” he says. “Currently, I don’t think it is a good idea to promote this kind of talent testing to the public, but I believe due to the rapid development of genomic techniques and AI-based data analysis methods we will have a better understanding of ‘talent’ in the near future.”


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Illustration by Rose Wong

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