Precision medicine key to preventing disease: Panel

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Professor Tan Chorh Chuan from the Ministry of Health, Zee Yoong Kang from the Health Promotion Board and Dennis Tan from Prudential Singapore discuss health-related issues in Singapore with ST senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.

An individual's genes can determine the amount of risk he has of developing life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and, in turn, allow for early intervention.

Achieving such outcomes is central to the precision medicine programme here, said Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, the chief health scientist of the Ministry of Health and executive director of its Office for Healthcare Transformation.

Prof Tan told a webinar yesterday that the research programme looks at the genome sequences of participants and how these may relate to health. For example, the presence of certain gene mutations could increase the risk of specific diseases.

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 hypercholesterolaemia is caused by gene mutations that result in high cholesterol levels at a much younger age. The affected person may 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 preventative strategies will be part of precision health," he added.

The HPB is working to make use of clinical, behavioural, digital and genetic data - with patient consent - to identify those at higher risk to allow for early intervention.

Prudential's Mr Tan said Singaporeans need not worry about being part of the programme or be concerned about finding out their genome sequences.

Having "bad" genes will not make it harder for them to secure insurance policies, he noted.

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 want to find out more.

"Preventative 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 said that if a person learns that he is at high risk of a certain disease, it will give him the time and opportunity to act before the ailment takes hold.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2020, with the headline Precision medicine key to preventing disease: Panel. Subscribe