Japan leading the charge for DNA testing trend in boost for personalised nutrition firms

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Simple home DNA test kits have become hugely popular among seniors in Japan. ©Getty Images
Simple home DNA test kits have become hugely popular among seniors in Japan. ©Getty Images

Related tags Japan personalised nutrition Dna testing Ageing

Japan's consumer genetic testing industry is booming, buoying hopes that personalised nutrition firms can tap into demands for tailored products, especially among the elderly.

According to the Fuji Chimera Research Institute, the consumer genetic testing industry — which is tipped to reach a value of ¥6.6bn by 2022, a 35% increase from ¥4.3bn in 2017 — has so far been dominated by two domestic firms: Genesis Healthcare and Genequest Inc.

Both companies offer DNA testing products and services to customers, who need only provide cheek swabs for testing so they can receive detailed reports on aspects of their health such as allergies and disease risk. Services cost anywhere from ¥5,000 to ¥30,000.

A test for every need?

NutraIngredients-Asia ​spoke to Genesis Healthcare, which commands 70% of the domestic market share. So far, it has served and collated data for over 600,000 customers, with a goal of a million customers this year.

The Tokyo-based start-up, which has an office in Singapore, goes by the name GeneLife in Japan. Its strong performance has been buoyed since August last year by a ¥1.4bn investment from Rakuten Inc., which coincided with CEO Hiroshi Mikitani joining the board.

Two of the firm's most popular DNA home testing kits in Japan are Genesis 2.0 and GeneLife DIET. The former claims to cover 'the most genetic test items in the world' — including the risk of different cancers, allergies, and conditions related to the bones, eyes, lungs, brain, immune system, digestive system and more.

The latter promises to help users with weight management by determining their gene types through their cheek swabs, and making dietary and lifestyle recommendations based on their results.

A Singapore-based spokesperson told us: "In terms of popularity, the Genesis 2.0 kit stands out, as it covers up to 361 test items, including the risk of different diseases, and an individual's health traits.

"The kit comes with a collection tube, in which users need store just a small amount of their saliva. They can then send it back to us in an envelope, which is also included.

"We also have GeneLife DIET, which focuses on body type. Users who take the test —  a simple cheek swab — will get a report with dietary recommendations after sending their samples to us for analysis.

"For Genesis 2.0, users can actually view their results online or via an app, and for GeneLife DIET, the online version is coming soon. Users can access their information any time, anywhere.”

Genesis Healthcare also covers postage costs for users in Japan and Singapore to send their DNA samples to their respective headquarters, whereupon they will be sent to a GeneLife lab in Japan, and receive their results in a month or earlier.

The firm also carries four other testing kits, covering skin health, metabolism, and sports nutrition.

Additionally, it has more extensive and complex testing kits meant for clinical use by doctors and researchers, including finger-prick blood tests.

Apart from Japan and Singapore the kits are currently available in five Asian countries: Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea.

Old-age appeal

The consumer testing kits, which are suitable for users aged 18 and older, are especially popular among the elderly in Japan, who appreciate the convenience and simplicity they offer in helping them keep tabs on their own health.

Analysts have said that about 33% of the country's population will be 65 and above by 2035. This rapid pace of ageing has alerted an increasing number of people to numerous health risks they may face later in life, which can be detected early via DNA testing.

Indeed, in recent years, seniors in Japan have slowly become more receptive to the idea of personalised health and nutrition services.

Genesis Healthcare and Genequest have attracted interest from food firms, who see potential in the sector for them to offer consumers tailored meals and nutrition products.

Last month, Nestlé announced a partnership​ with Genesis Healthcare last month to roll out a new app offering dietary guidance based on DNA testing, signalling a shift in the former's focus from general F&B to aged care in Japan.

Last year, health drink and supplement firm Euglena Co. bought Genequest, and both firms now offer DNA testing for user's alcohol tolerance.

Earlier this year, DSM also announced a collaboration​ with Japanese firm DeNA Life Science, which is known for its genetic testing service called MYCODE.

COO,Yusuke Nakanishi told  NutraIngredients-Asia​: "How long you live as a healthy person has been a big topic of discussion lately.

"Japan in recent decades has seen a surge in the ageing population, with more than 30% to be over 60 years old in the next decade. The average life expectancy for females is around 87 years, and Japan is one of the top countries in the world for longevity.

"This means that with longer life expectancy, there is a rising need for early prevention enabling one to lead a happier, more active life marked by better quality of life.

"Genetic testing is becoming popular among older people in Japan as it allows them to be more aware of which diseases they are at higher risk of developing.

"Once these are identified, they can speak to their primary care physicians about prevention methods, and make better lifestyle choices such as changing their diet to minimise their risk."

Gradual growth

Still, the size of Japan's home testing sector pales in comparison to that of the US, where ¥8.1bn (US$73m) was spent on genetic exams in 2017.

Both Genesis Healthcare and Genequest, however, are confident that demand for home testing kits and online services based on individual users' genetic data will continue to grow as consumers become more knowledgeable about the technology involved.

Apart from aged care, the firm wants to look further into the area of obesity, an increasingly prevalent issue in many Asian countries.

Nakanishi said, "We believe that with the rise of obesity in Japan and Asia, the need to understand how genes and nutrition are intertwined and affect one's health is more important than ever.

"Genesis Healthcare is not only a private company, but a research institute. As more information is being decoded from understanding the full genome, we intend to offer more personalised nutrition through our consumer kits."

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