I’m holding a vial about the size of my thumb, which contains a cotton bud I’ve used to swab the inside of my cheek. It’s hard to believe that inside this tiny container is the key to most of the questions I’ve ever had about myself – my ancestry, my body type and whether I’m at risk of hereditary disease.
These are some of the most commonly asked queries, but did you know you can also find out more about your own personality – whether, for example, you’re an agreeable person? You could find out more about your ideal sporting regimen – what exercises are most effective for you? You could even find out if you were cut out to be an entrepreneur through analysing your success traits.
Within this vial is, of course, a sample of your DNA. Scientists have studied the human genome for decades to understand our genetic make-up. Mapping out the human genome in its entirety was only declared complete in 2003 with the Human Genome Project, which was started in 1990 and involved a massive collaboration between scientists around the world. Nowadays, it takes 18 days to run tests based on your saliva sample, utilising whole exome-sequencing technology, which gives you 500 reports to tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know – and perhaps some things you didn’t – about yourself.
CircleDNA by Prenetics is one of the leading genetics companies to offer this service, and today I’m meeting its founder, Danny Yeung, to find out how it all began.
The Impact of Covid
It’s an extremely busy time for Yeung; in a year when health has become more important than ever before, sales for the CircleDNA kit have skyrocketed. But, more than that, Yeung has branched out to establish Project Screen, which uses WHO- recommended testing technologies as part of a turnkey solution to enable key industries and sports leagues safely to return to work and play.
“Interestingly enough,” says Yeung, “I’d say there are three to four companies that have really made an impact on Covid-19 – and they all came from genetic testing, because a lot of the laboratory equipment, and the scientific and medical aspects, are highy transferable to Covid testing.”
His company, Prenetics, made the pivot to Covid testing last March, when Yeung received a barrage of messages from close friends asking whether his company offered it. “It was difficult to get a Covid test back then. You had to pay HK$3,000-$4,000 for a Covid test and that was only limited to a few hospitals,” Yeung explains. “It seemed just insane to me, so we had a meeting with senior government officials in Hong Kong to see if we could play a supporting role.”
Operating five test centres in the community, Prenetics has carried out more than 400,000 PCR tests, identifying a few hundred positive cases within the community. At its peak, the company was doing 20,000 tests a day in Hong Kong alone.
Danny Yeung’s Pivot to Health
An entrepreneur his whole adult life, health hadn’t been a top priority for Yeung. “It was probably the last thing I thought about,” he says. “I started working before I was 15, and began my first business at 25. You don’t take care of yourself as an entrepreneur, you eat crappy food and you don’t sleep.
“When I moved to Hong Kong in 2010, that was probably my most unhealthy time. This was when I started uBuyiBuy and Groupon – I was working with restaurants, going out a lot, eating a lot and socialising.”
Here, Yeung makes another observation. Health wasn’t a priority for him, but nor was it a priority for many others. “You only think of health and wellness when you’re already able to survive,” he says. “In many aspects, health is a kind of luxury. To have a healthy lifestyle is actually more expensive, correct? So I wasn’t always healthy. I wasn’t always eating properly.
“Health is a journey, right? It’s not an overnight thing,” says Yeung, who only really begun to think about the subject in 2014, around the time he left Groupon and became a father. For his next venture, he wanted to explore health. He didn’t have a background in science or medicine, but he’d developed an interest in genetics testing, finding it a powerful tool for people to take charge of their own health and take necessary steps to live healthier and stronger.
“Health is a journey. It’s not an overnight thing”Danny Yeung
A Health Scare
Yeung himself has first-hand experience. Now aged just 36, he discovered through genetic testing a few years ago that he had an increased risk for colon cancer. “It was a surprise to me, because I don’t have a family history of cancer,” he says. Within the general health-care system, a colonoscopy was only recommended at the age of 50. Realising many years earlier that he has an increased risk means he can actively take steps to reduce it.
“Genetics isn’t a death sentence,” says Yeung. “If you know you have an increased risk, why increase that risk further?” He began to live more healthily, managing his diet, cutting out red meat and exercising more. “I lost 20 pounds. I used to love steak, but once you know this information, you’re motivated to make these changes.”
Although self-care is a huge topic today, it often feels like a luxury. After all, pamper-me moments are only possible if you can afford the time and the money to do it. But shouldn’t health – both physical and mental – be essential and accessible to everyone?
Yeung certainly feels this way. “That’s why we launched CircleDNA,” he says. “I felt that the best form of medicine is actually prevention, not treatment. Because once you have the disease, whether it’s high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or cancer – whatever it is – you want the best doctor and the best treatment, and all of this is very costly. It’s also not the best treatment. Those who are invested in their own health already have this amazing tool that can really enable them to make the right choices for the rest of their life.”
“Those who are invested in their own health already have this amazing tool that can really enable them to make the right choices for the rest of their life”Danny Yeung
How CircleDNA Works
The procedure is so simple it’s almost shocking. You simply swab your saliva, seal the sample in the vial provided and mail it to Prenetics. You’re given 500 reports within 18 days, all of which you can access through CircleDNA’s user-friendly mobile app.
“When I started looking into this six years ago, that was what fascinated me the most. I was really fascinated that you can do so little and get so much information,” says Yeung. “That’s all due to the genetic-sequencing technology. It’s not new technology, but we’ve been able to make it much more cost-effective. The Human Genome Project cost about US$3 billion to map out, but the cost to individuals has dropped dramatically, to a few thousand Hong Kong dollars.”
The 500 tests span 20 categories, mapping out common health risks, cancers, diseases, dementia and brain health, as well as touching on family planning, ancestry and gender traits. You can learn about planning your diet, nutrition, stress and sleep patterns, as well as your skin type, general wellbeing and sports and fitness regimes. You can even find out your sensitivities to pollution and drugs, and learn about your physical, personality, behavioural and success traits. Are you gifted in music and dance? Well, it’s a mystery no more. Genetic testing has taken out all the guesswork, and put your health and wellbeing back into your own hands.
“You can find out so much about yourself,” says Yeung. “And the great thing is, in terms of health and wellness, it’s such a small cost for a lifetime of information.”