A single blood test that can reveal a person’s susceptibility to cancer and identify any potentially cancer-causing genes – that is the futuristic promise made by genetic testing.
It is the reason a female executive from Wuhan, surnamed Chen, recently spent $5,925 (40,000 yuan) on a genetic test report, according to local media.
She was drawn by advertisements that proclaimed the test could help “pre-emotively prevent potential cancers”.
But without the guidance of a qualified genetic counselor, such book-length reports – filled with medical jargon and complex conclusions – are almost indecipherable.
Li Zongzhe, 30, a cardiovascular doctor at Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, is about to become Hubei province’s first intermediate-level genetic counselor. The hospital where he works, which is regarded as one of China’s best, currently has only two elementary-level counselors and none at an advanced-level.
In 2004, Li attended Huazhong University of Science and Technology’s Tongji Medical College and studied under Professor Wang Daowen, director of the hospital’s genetics clinic.
Now, after a day’s work, Li goes to his office on the hospital’s 24th floor to continue his research into genetic testing. He sleeps in his office, only going home twice a week to change his clothes.
“I am entirely interest-driven, otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted this long,” Li said. “I am also a pragmatist. The more research I do, the more I realize that all diseases, apart from external wounds, are related to genetics to some extent.
“Our job is to help clients understand their own ‘blueprint of life’ – their genetic makeup – so that we can evaluate the risks, understand the root causes, and offer the best possible treatments.”
Recently Li worked with a couple whose first child had brittle bone disease, and ruled out a random mutation as the cause of the genetic disorder. He therefore advised the family, who wanted a second, healthy child, to have a genetic test carried out on the fetus nine to 16 weeks after conception to assess its probability of inheriting the disease.
However, because everyone’s genetic makeup is different, genetic counselors
have to be careful with their recommendations. Looking to the future, Li hopes more hospitals in China will establish and develop genetic counseling departments. “I hope we can help more patients from the genetics level,” he said.