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[Herald Interview] ‘All consumer decisions to soon depend on genomic data’

Knowing your nature can change your nurture for the best, says Theragen Etex CEO

Theragen Etex CEO Hwang Tae-soon (Lim Jeong-yeo/ The Korea Herald)
Theragen Etex CEO Hwang Tae-soon (Lim Jeong-yeo/ The Korea Herald)
Personal computers have become ubiquitous in daily life since they were popularized in the late 1970s.

“It’s now unimaginable to work or live without computers. Soon, the same will be said about genomic data and consumer behavior,” said Hwang Tae-soon, CEO of genome analysis company Theragen Etex, in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

Hwang foresees that in less than a decade, genomic logic will be applied to all commercial areas.

A genome is the entire bundle of human genetic material within our cells, containing the 3 billion pairs of nucleotide bases that form our DNA. It constitutes the genetic manuscript by which a person is engineered to function.

From the moment we are born, we are determined by nature according to this built-in manual, but we can trigger or subdue these traits through nurture, Hwang said.

Genomic data is typically used in four areas: cancer prevention, chronic illness diagnosis, pharmaceutical response testing and general lifestyle health care.

The first two areas pertain to serious diseases and fall under the domain of medical institutions, according to the Bioethics and Safety Act.

Medical institutions make up around 90 percent of Theragen Etex’s some 600 clients, charging millions of won for the knowledge of potential illnesses a patient may have.

As for the other two areas, which fall under the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model, Theragen Etex can provide genome analysis services directly to consumers and can collect their data if they agree, for later use in business-to-business projects.

There are a number of interesting things one can learn from a DTC genome test.

For example, those with the FTO gene will have better success in losing weight if they do more heavy lifting than cutting sweets. Those with the CYP1A2 mutation can suffer from sleep loss on a comparatively small intake of caffeine, while those with ALDH2 polymorphism have high alcohol metabolism. That makes them prone to overdrinking, which can cause fatty liver, diabetes or high blood pressure. 

Theragen Etex CEO Hwang Tae-soon (Lim Jeong-yeo/ The Korea Herald)
Theragen Etex CEO Hwang Tae-soon (Lim Jeong-yeo/ The Korea Herald)
“But then what? What actions can be taken based on the information we learn?” Hwang said.

“Genomic knowledge must be aligned with solution providers to add value to consumers. There must be a scientific mapping with hospitals, fitness centers, food and cosmetics companies for an ecosystem that synergizes,” Hwang said.

Theragen Etex has been co-researching with Amorepacific for four years and has five co-patents. The two are in talks toward launching a new service within this year. Theragen Etex is in talks with multiple firms in fields encompassing food, fitness and beauty, Hwang added.

South Korea is allowing 56 types of wellness-related DTC tests starting February, an expansion from the previous 12. A wellness DTC test would deal with non-life threatening health information such as vitamins and collagen.

These DTC tests, covering “lighter” concerns -- such as one’s chances of going bald, becoming obese or getting premature facial wrinkles -- are done via courier between a genome company and the consumer using a kit with cotton swabs.

A bundle of five tests would cost 100,000 won ($82) on average, and it would take five to seven business days to get the results.

Though things have improved since the early days of genome analysis, when the price tag was astronomical, the service is not yet affordable enough for the general public to help them prevent potentially life-threatening illnesses.

Hwang said a clearer definition of “disease” in the Bioethics and Safety Act would help the growth of a genome-fueled economy.

For example, the inclusion of information on cartilage and joint health in the DTC “wellness” category would help draw public interest in the service, and could also preemptively help the government save on welfare costs as the population ages.

This year Theragen Etex is launching a brand new test kit for a more extensive range of DTC tests, and hopes it will bear fruit through an expanded presence in the B2B wellness segment. The company expects that the genome-base artificial intelligence big data business will pick up momentum this year.

Its subsidiary MedPacto will continue the phase 2 clinical trials of anti-cancer treatment pipeline Vactosertib according to plans.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (kaylalim@heraldcorp.com)

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