SINGAPORE – An individual’s genes can determine the amount of risk he has of developing life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and in turn allows for early intervention.
This is central to the precision medicine programme here, said Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, the chief health scientist from the Ministry of Health and executive director at the Healthcare Transformation Office.
Prof Tan told a webinar on Wednesday (Nov 25) that the programme looks at the genome sequences of participants to help determine the cumulative risks of different diseases based on their genes.
This can be particularly useful for some complaints like premature heart disease, added Prof Tan, who was joined on the webinar panel by Prudential chief executive Dennis Tan and Health Promotion Board (HPB) CEO Zee Yoong Kang.
The event, which covered a broad range of health topics from diabetes and vaccines to strategies on how to stay healthy, is part of The Straits Times Reset 2021 webinar series. It was sponsored by Prudential and moderated by ST senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.
Prof Tan told the webinar that a condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia is caused when a person has a gene that results in high cholesterol levels at a much younger age. If that gene is present, the individual will have up to 20 times higher risk of heart disease – and at an earlier age.
“And then if we identify somebody, we can also test the family. So these preventive strategies will be part of precision health,” he added.
The HPB is working to make use of the clinical, behavioural and digital data as well as genetic data – with patient consent – to identify those at higher risk to allow for early intervention.
Prudential’s Mr Tan said Singaporeans need not be worried about being part of the programme or be concerned if they find out their genome sequences. Having “bad” genes will not make it harder for them to secure insurance policies, he assured.
Privacy is really important, Mr Tan said, adding that “we (Prudential) are very, very careful about such things”.
He said individuals ultimately have to take charge of their own health and should find out more. He said: “Preventive healthcare is all about them being in the driver’s seat, and going through the whole process of early detection, health screening and all.
“So I think as insurers, we will definitely support them.”
Ms Khalik noted that if a person learns that he is at a high risk of getting a certain disease, it will give him the time and opportunity to act before the ailment takes hold.